Introduction to Sin
Sin’s Relationship to Other Doctrines
Origin of Sin
The universal sinfulness of man is obvious and verifiable. Sin permeates every aspect of our existence. It impacts us individually and societally. It is deeply rooted within us and is manifested continually. Throughout history, societies have consistently acknowledged man’s natural sinfulness. Since the Enlightenment, however, Western civilization has become increasingly antagonistic to the reality of sin, especially as it is defined biblically. There are four main reasons for this change.
First, modernity tends to view human beings as naturally good. Before the philosophical shifts of the eighteenth century, a general understanding of human depravity prevailed. The Protestant Reformation, for example, was connected with Martin Luther’s angst over his own sinfulness. With the coming of the modern era, though, the traditional view of man’s sinfulness began to wane, and man was viewed as inherently good. Human problems and suffering were linked with ignorance. In the false euphoria of the Enlightenment, many concluded from the advances in education, science, and technology that man was inherently good and that as he was educated, the world would get better. The twentieth century clearly obliterated that illusion, and man’s depravity was put on display, as the world exploded with the largest scale of warfare and bloodshed in history—including two devastating world wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. The twenty-first century so far has also been rife with wars, unstable nations pursuing or possessing nuclear weapons, and increasing Islamic terrorism. Global media have exponentially exposed human depravity at a level never before imagined. The education, science, and technology that brought great medical advances and comforts have at the same time devised weapons of mass destruction. Societies are increasingly opposed to God’s standards, even redefining basic aspects of human identity such as gender and marriage. Contrary to the modern and postmodern mindsets, the reality of sin is alive and on full display.
Second, deterministic views of humanity have challenged the biblical understanding of sin. People are viewed primarily as products of their environment, social upbringing, or psychological drives or deprivations. Society has gone so far in accommodating its own depravity that it is reluctant to hold anyone morally culpable for almost any behavior. This accommodation is consistent with the view that man is basically a machine that does what he is preprogramed to do.
Third, with the rise of postmodernism, our society has shifted toward moral relativism. Today, right and wrong, good and evil, are not defined in absolute terms but are viewed subjectively. Individuals and societies, not God, are seen as having the authority to determine what is wrong. A strong majority of people now believe that truth and morals are flexible and subjective, not fixed. And they have no interest in what Scripture says.
Fourth, sin is an unpleasant subject. In our age of self-esteem and subjectivity, people do not like to think of themselves as evil. Millard Erickson notes, “To speak of humans as sinners is almost like screaming out a profanity or obscenity at a very formal, dignified, genteel meeting, or even in church. It is forbidden. This general attitude is almost a new type of legalism, the major prohibition of which is, ‘You shall not speak anything negative.’ ”
Of the Bible’s sixty-six books and 1,189 chapters, only two books and four chapters do not mention sin or sinners. Genesis 1–2 and Revelation 21–22 stand alone as unique chapters that rehearse the creation before sin and the new heaven and new earth, which will never be infected by sin. The rest of the Bible, from Genesis 3:1 to Revelation 20:15, abounds with the themes of human sin and the need for salvation. Sin is a major doctrine.
The study of sin is called hamartiology. This designation comes from the Greek word for “sin,” hamartia. Several associated terms and concepts indicate that sin is a multifaceted and complex reality. In the Old Testament Hebrew, khata’ is often translated “sinning” or “sinned” (Gen. 20:6; Ex. 10:16). The word is also linked with missing the mark (Judg. 20:16). Proverbs 19:2 states, “Whoever makes haste with his feet misses [khata’] his way.” This term is closely related to the Greek noun hamartia (“sin”) and its verb form hamartanō, meaning “miss the mark,” “err,” or “be mistaken.” The verb form is found in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned [hamartanō] and fall short of the glory of God.”
Pasha‘ is another strong Hebrew term for sin in the Old Testament. The word means “to rebel,” “to trespass,” or “to betray.” It is used of Israel’s revolt against God in Isaiah 1:2: “But they have rebelled [pasha‘] against me.” Also, the Hebrew word ‘abar means “to transgress” or “to pass over.” In a moral context it refers to transgressing a commandment or violating a covenant. Moses said, “Why then are you transgressing [‘abar] the command of the Lord, when it will not succeed?” (Num. 14:41). In Judges 2:20, God was angry with Israel because “this people have transgressed [‘abar] my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice.”
Various Greek terms for “sin” exist in the New Testament. The word adikia means “unrighteousness” or “injustice” (Rom. 1:18). Paul referred to certain persons “who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness [adikia]” (2 Thess. 2:12). The term planaō emphasizes “wandering” or “straying” (2 Tim. 3:13; 2 Pet. 3:17). Sin is also anomia, which means “lawlessness,” that is, rejecting God’s law. First John 3:4 simply declares, “Sin is lawlessness.”
Apeitheō carries the sense of being disobedient and willfully obstinate toward God’s will (Rom. 11:31; John 3:36). Asebeia can be translated “ungodliness,” “wickedness,” or “impiety.” Jude said, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly [asebeia] passions” (Jude 18). Agnoia refers to ignorance or the absence of understanding. Paul said that unbelievers were darkened in their understanding “because of the ignorance [agnoia] that is in them” (Eph. 4:18). Parabasis is a breaking of or deviation from God’s law. Romans 2:23 states, “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking [parabasis] the law.”
The above is not an exhaustive list, but together these representative biblical terms demonstrate the multidimensional nature of sin. Sin is clearly wrong in many ways. But is there a central or core element of sin? Various answers to this question have been offered. Augustine asserted that pride is the heart of sin, because it is the motive behind man’s attempt to live his life in the power of self. Others have postulated that lack of shalom, or peace, is the core of sin, since it always brings disruption and pain. Selfishness and idolatry are other suggestions. Selfishness is loving oneself more than God. Idolatry is worshiping a creature instead of the Creator. The first commandment warns against idolatry—“I am the Lord your God.… You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3). Certainly all the concepts surveyed above are components of the complexity of human depravity.
Sin must be understood from a theocentric or God-centered standpoint. At its core, sin is a violation of the Creator-creature relationship. Man only exists because God made him, and man is in every sense obligated to serve his Creator. Sin causes man to assume the role of God and to assert autonomy for himself apart from the Creator. The most all-encompassing view of sin’s mainspring, therefore, is the demand for autonomy.
Because God is the Creator of everything, all creatures are obligated to obey him and to live according to his will. The falls of Satan and then Adam and Eve are tied to acting autonomously and disobediently seeking to be like God. Through a human king, Satan declared, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14). Later, the Satan-inspired serpent told Eve, “When you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Eve and then Adam, without regard for God’s command, acted on this belief: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).
In the cases of Satan and of Adam and Eve, they were not satisfied in obeying God. They were created to love God with all their being and to interpret the world from his perspective. But they did not desire to love God through obedience. Acting autonomously, they stepped out on their own in an effort to be like God. That wicked presumption is repeated with every sin. Instead of saying, “God’s will be done,” the sinner says, “My will be done.” Sin, therefore, is acting autonomously and usurping the authority of God.
In his detailed treatise on the sinfulness of mankind in Romans 1–3, Paul explained how sinful creatures violated their relationship with the Creator: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Rom. 1:25). Thus, idolatry occurs when persons exchange the worship of God for the worship of creatures. The peace and wholeness that only comes from worshiping the true God is forfeited when worship is instead directed toward creatures. By rejecting the Creator, the unbelieving heart seeks to satisfy itself with that which cannot bring lasting joy or true fulfillment—whether material possessions, success, admiration, immoral relationships, drugs, alcohol, gambling, or many other substitutes. Those who devote themselves to such things become enslaved to them (2 Pet. 2:19).
In the context of Romans 1, Paul said that foolish people with darkened hearts “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). He singled out homosexuality by both women and men: “For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Rom. 1:26–27).
In light of these factors we offer this short definition of sin: Sin is any lack of conformity to God’s will in attitude, thought, or action, whether committed actively or passively. The center of all sin is autonomy, which is the replacing of God with self. Always closely associated with sin are its products—pride, selfishness, idolatry, and lack of peace (shalom).
Sin’s Relationship to Other Doctrines
DOCTRINE OF GOD
The doctrine of sin is inseparable from all other biblical doctrines. The doctrine of sin is linked to God since sin is primarily against God. Psalm 51:4 says, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” In addition, only God can take the initiative to remove the enmity between man and God (2 Cor. 5:19).
DOCTRINE OF MAN
The doctrine of sin directly defines mankind as fallen and affects everyone since sin defines every life at birth; corrupts everyone’s relationship with God, with other persons, and with creation; and brings all to death. Sin impacts our entire human constitution and existence, distorting every aspect of our being—body and soul. Sin also affects man’s ability to fully rule and subdue the creation. Only a righteous man—Jesus—can succeed perfectly where Adam and mankind failed. Only the Son of Man can and will reverse the curse.
DOCTRINE OF SALVATION
The doctrine of sin obviously affects the doctrine of salvation since sinners need to be rescued but are unable to save themselves. Because they are profoundly and pervasively sinful, sinners are in need of salvation by grace. Without salvation by divine grace alone, man not only fails his God-intended relationships and functions but also is left to face the eternal wrath of God.
DOCTRINE OF CHRIST
The doctrine of sin relates to Jesus Christ since Jesus is the last Adam, the suffering servant, the Messiah, and the seed of the woman—the One who conquers sin and all its forms and effects, redeems believers, restores creation, and defeats Satan. Jesus does all this by atoning for the sins of his people. Without his perfect, substitutionary death, there would be no salvation from sin. And without his resurrection and exaltation as Lord of all, man would not be able to rule over creation as God promised and expects.
DOCTRINE OF ANGELS
Both Satan and the fallen angels sinned against God and were removed from his presence. No salvation is provided for Satan and the demons who followed him. While holy angels are ministering spirits who serve people inheriting salvation (Heb. 1:14), Satan and his evil spirits are deceivers who tempt mankind to disobey God. Satan and all fallen angels will be punished by being made to dwell forever in the lake of fire prepared for them.
DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH
The church is the community of people saved from sin in this age. It is also God’s global ambassador for proclaiming reconciliation to sinners. The church proclaims the gospel of the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus Christ. God’s grace in Christians breaks the power of sin in their lives, and they are to experience victory over sin by obeying God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, which testifies to the power of God in salvation.
DOCTRINE OF ESCHATOLOGY
The fallen world is dominated by sin and its effects. But it is not as bad as it could be or will be, because a time is coming when the Holy Spirit will cease to restrain sin as he does presently. When that time occurs, the Antichrist figure will appear, being Satan’s man who embodies lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3–4; Rev. 13:1–10). Demons who have long been bound will be released from the pit and will come to earth to tempt and torment (Rev. 9:1–11). At his return to earth, Jesus will defeat the Antichrist and his followers (Rev. 19:19–21). Satan and his demons will be bound during the millennial period (Rev. 20:1–6) and will ultimately be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10), and sin and its effects will be finally removed with the coming eternal state. In regard to the new earth, Revelation 21:4 states, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Origin of Sin
The Bible lays the blame for the sin and death in the world on the first man, Adam (Rom. 5:12). Yet in Genesis 3 and its account of man’s fall, a dark spiritual figure lurks with evil intentions. This creature tempted God’s image bearers and cast doubt on what God had told them. He enticed them to interpret the world from his perspective, not God’s. Though this creature was a literal serpent (Gen. 3:1), the force behind the snake was the fallen angel Lucifer, now known as Satan, which means “adversary.”
Genesis does not describe Satan’s fall, but the chief demon arrives in Genesis 3 as a fallen being fiercely opposed to God. The fall of Satan is probably being referred to in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14. Both passages speak of human kings (of Tyre and Babylon), yet what is depicted goes far beyond any human monarch. Rather, both passages describe the first sin in the cosmos. Ezekiel 28:13 says, “You were in Eden, the garden of God.” We are told that Satan was an “anointed guardian cherub … on the holy mountain of God” (Ezek. 28:14). The reference to “cherub” means that Satan was an angel in God’s presence. Ezekiel 28:15 then states, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.” So Satan went from “blameless” to “unrighteousness.” God is not the chargeable cause of unrighteousness. Unrighteousness was found in Satan; the blame lies with him. Isaiah 14:14 says that the desire to be like God (“the Most High”) was the reason for this angelic worship leader’s rebellion (Isa. 14:11–12).
ADAM AND EVE
The Serpent approached Eve with the lie that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would bring enlightenment and make her like God. Eve was seduced by the lie and ate first from the tree and then gave the fruit to Adam (Gen. 3:6). Still, Scripture places the primary responsibility for this act on Adam, since Adam, not Eve, was the representative head of humanity. Adam and Eve immediately became sinners and hid themselves out of fearful guilt. God called for Adam specifically: “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ ” (Gen. 3:9). Paul says that both Adam and Eve sinned, yet the key difference is that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:14). Romans 5:12 explicitly places the blame for the sin and death in the world on Adam, the representative head: “Sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin.”
There are parallels between the first two rebellions. Satan and Adam both sinned after being created sinless and directly experiencing God’s presence. Satan was in God’s presence in heaven, while Adam walked with God in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8). Both were unsatisfied with their perfect conditions, rebelliously desiring to be like their Creator (Gen. 3:5). But rather than making them equal to God, their rebellion made them far less like God than they had already been and separated them from God.
Since God cannot be the author of sin and does not tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13), and since Lucifer, the angels who followed him, and Adam and Eve were all created sinless, the question arises as to where sin originated. Many believe that since God is all-powerful, the blame for sin must belong to him. This is false. Certainly, the origin of sin is a deep and dark mystery, but God is not the chargeable cause of sin. Because created persons sinned, the capacity for sin had to exist as a possibility within them. Sin occurred because Satan, Adam, and Eve chose to exercise their volition to disobey God rather than to love God. Consequently, as creatures, they cannot escape accountability to their Creator.
Sin does not surprise God. He is able to overcome sin and has even ordained it to most fully display his glory, but the blame for sin lies at the feet of the persons who choose to disobey. God’s absolute sovereignty in no way undermines man’s accountability. This is true both for Satan and fallen angels and for Adam and Eve, who passed on their sinfulness to all their descendants.
Consequences of the Fall
The Fall’s Impact on Relationships
Three Forms of Death
Transmission of Adam’s Sin
Old Self and New Self
Sin always disappoints and never satisfies. Adam and Eve were instantly faced with this reality. The aftermath of their sinful act reveals sin’s consequences. Embracing the Serpent’s lie, Adam and Eve expected to become like God, enlightened and fulfilled. Yet the opposite occurred. When Eve and then Adam ate of the forbidden tree, their eyes “were opened” but not in the way they expected (Gen. 3:7). They did not discover contentment and bliss. Instead, they experienced guilt and shame. They were immediately aware of their nakedness and sewed fig leaves together to cover their condition (Gen. 3:7). The purity and innocence of their prefall state ended. Everything suddenly changed. A Pandora’s box of perversion and negative consequences was unleashed. They were entirely unlike God.
Satan promised Eve that eating from the tree would bring knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:5), and this came true in a way Eve would never have expected. Adam and Eve now knew evil experientally, along with its devastating consequences. In addition to shame came another consequence—fear. When the couple heard God walking in the garden, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). Adam said, “I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10). Sin causes fear and hiding from God. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree, they set God aside and focused on their desires. But acting autonomously did not mean escaping from God. Their holy Creator came looking for them, and for the first time, with sin on their minds, they were afraid.
Another result of sin was blame. When God confronted Adam, Adam appeared to blame Eve: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). In reality, Adam blamed God when he said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me …” Then when God asked Eve what she had done, she blamed the animal, saying, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen. 3:13). The universal default position among fallen persons is to blame someone else for their sin.
These personal consequences for sin are severe. Sin promises enlightenment and peace, but instead it brings shame, fear, and blame, as well as death (Gen. 2:17). And as the next section shows, the consequences reach far beyond even this.
The Fall’s Impact on Relationships
The negative consequences for sin go beyond personal turmoil and despair. Man was created for relationships with God, with other people, and with the creation. All three connections were damaged by the fall of man.
First and most important, man’s relationship with God was severed. Man became spiritually dead. (More on what spiritual death entails will be discussed below [p. 460].)
In addition, sin brings the wrath of God, which is God’s righteous displeasure toward sin. Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (cf. Col. 3:5–6). Ephesians 5:6 states, “The wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” God’s wrath hangs over all in rebellion against him and will be manifested in the future day of the Lord and the final judgment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15). Paul said to the unrepentant, “You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5).
Sin also invites God’s punishment. Because he is holy and righteous, God must punish sin. Jesus said that the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). The seriousness of sin’s penalty was demonstrated when the Son of God took upon himself the punishment for the sins of all of God’s elect on the cross.
Sin creates enmity, a hostile situation between parties. Romans 5:10 says that before salvation in Christ, people are “enemies” of God. Unbelievers are “alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18). Also, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7). The responsibility for the enmity lies solely with man.
Next, sin disrupted all human relationships. First, God said that the woman would have increased pain in childbirth, so that even the procreation of another person would be difficult: “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children’ ” (Gen. 3:16a).
Second, tension between man and woman in the basic and necessary union of marriage would also transpire. God told Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16b). While “desire” could refer to a physical desire for her husband, a desire to control is probably in view. Genesis 4:7, which has a parallel construction, uses “desire” in a controlling sense: “And if you [Cain] do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” So Genesis 3:16 predicts struggle and conflict within marriage, the most intimate love relationship.
Third, strife between persons in general society is promised and realized. Cain slew his brother Abel for jealous reasons (Gen. 4:8). Lamech killed a young man who struck him (Gen. 4:23). The history of mankind manifests continual hatred, strife, murders, and war.
Man’s sin negatively affected his relationship to the creation. Man’s mandate to rule and subdue the earth and its creatures is not revoked (Ps. 8:4–8), but creation now works against man and frustrates his efforts. God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Gen. 3:17). The cursed ground will lead to “pain” for man. Adam is also told, “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:18–19a). So man’s interaction with the earth will be difficult, and the earth will even consume him at death (Gen. 3:19b). God’s expectation for a successful rule of man remains unfulfilled. Hebrews 2:5–8 reaffirms that God created man to rule creation but recognizes that “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Heb. 2:8). It will take the last Adam, Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45), and those who believe in him, to successfully rule the earth (Rev. 5:10). This will occur when Jesus returns and establishes his millennial reign (Rev. 20:1–6).
In sum, not only will Adam and his descendants suffer and die as individuals, but also all his relationships will suffer. Only the Lord Jesus will be able to restore mankind’s relationship to God, to one another, and to the creation. As the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), he will love God and people perfectly and will manifest absolute control over creation.
Three Forms of Death
The widespread and devastating results of sin can be summarized in one word—death. God told Adam, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Death is the penalty for disobedience. It is a complex concept involving (1) spiritual death, (2) physical death, and (3) eternal death.
When Adam and Eve sinned, physical death did not occur immediately. Adam lived 930 years (Gen. 5:5). Spiritual death, however, happened instantly. Spiritual death is the state of spiritual alienation from God. As a result of Adam’s sin, all living people are born spiritually dead (with the exception of the Lord Jesus Christ). Paul refers to spiritual death in Ephesians 2:1: “And you were dead in [your] trespasses and sins.” In Ephesians 2:5, Paul says that unsaved people are “dead in [their] trespasses.” For Adam and Eve, sin brought separation from God, banishment from his presence, and forfeiture of spiritual life (Gen. 2:23–24). All their descendants have likewise been born in a state of spiritual death. This deadness also renders a person unresponsive to spiritual truth (Rom. 8:7–8; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 4:17–18). Only by the divine miracle of regeneration does God end spiritual death and re-create sinners, making them alive to himself (2 Cor. 4:6).
While God mercifully did not impose physical death on Adam and Eve immediately, the process of physical death started when they sinned. God told Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
Adam was formed from dust, but here a tragic irony was introduced. Because of sin, he would return to dust and the ground would swallow him up in death. Physical death would happen since Adam and Eve were barred from the tree of life (Gen. 3:24).
Also, even before any human died, animal death occurred when God killed an animal to use its skin to clothe Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). Human death first occurred when the initial offspring of Adam and Eve—Cain—slew his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8). The list of Adam’s descendants in Genesis 5 starkly reveals that death became the end of every human life, by repeating after every person listed, “… and he died” (Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31). Besides the past exceptions of Enoch and Elijah and the future exceptions of those who will be alive at the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13–18), physical death will consume all descendants of Adam. The writer of Hebrews declares, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Physical life became brief after the flood. Moses said, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10).
Eternal death awaits those who physically die while being spiritually dead. Those who die in unbelief will face the lake of fire forever (Rev. 20:11–15). John refers to this as “the second death” (Rev. 20:6). While it does not cause people to cease to exist, eternal death is still a kind of death since it involves everlasting ruin, punishment for sins, and separation from God’s presence to bless. Only those who are delivered by the gracious work of the Lord Jesus escape eternal death. Revelation 20:6 states, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power.”
Transmission of Adam’s Sin
How does the first man’s sin affect all born after him? Theologians often refer to this reality as original sin, from the Latin peccatum originale. In one sense, original sin refers to the first sin committed by Adam. But original sin also encompasses the sinful state and condition of all people because of their relationship to Adam, which is the reason people are depraved and tainted with sin from conception.
Several verses support the concept of original sin, including Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” and Ephesians 2:3, “We … were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Also, Adam’s sin is linked with man’s sinfulness in Romans 5:12–21, the most detailed Scripture passage on this topic. This passage is also one of the most debated sections in Romans, since several views have been proffered regarding how Adam’s sin impacts mankind.
Romans 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned …” Four truths are asserted here. First, sin entered the world through “one man”—Adam. Second, sin brought death. Third, death spread to all people. Fourth, the reason death spread to all people is “because all sinned.” It is this last point that is most disputed. Augustine used Latin translations of Romans 5:12 that interpreted the Greek phrase eph hō in the sense of in quo (“in whom”), translating the last part of the verse as “in whom [i.e., Adam] all sinned.” Most translations today rightly opt instead for a causal sense: “because all sinned.”
But how have “all sinned” in Adam? Is Paul referring to the fact that all people commit acts of sin? Or does “all sinned” somehow connect Adam’s sin with all people being sinners? In Romans 5:18–19, Paul explains that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” and that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” In Romans 5:15, he also states, “Many died through one man’s trespass.” Plus, the aorist tense for “sinned” (Gk. hēmarton) at the end of Romans 5:12 points to a specific historical event. So a direct connection exists between Adam’s sin and the sinfulness of Adam’s descendants. But what is this connection? Several answers have been offered.
One view is that Romans 5:12–21 reveals a vague solidarity between Adam and all people that is not explained. Some connection admittedly exists, but proponents of this opaque idea suggest that it cannot be known with certainty. We must be content with not knowing. This unexplained solidarity position appears to be the default for those unsatisfied with the other views mentioned below.
Some hold that Adam’s sin is a bad example left for all people. When people sin, they follow Adam’s bad precedent. Humans are not actually guilty for Adam’s sin, nor do they inherit a sinful nature from him. They rather choose to follow Adam’s bad example. No direct transmission of sin exists between people and Adam. This Adam-as-bad-example view is historically linked with Pelagius (ca. 354–ca. 420), the British monk who rejected the doctrine that all humans possess a sin nature. He taught that people are able to obey God without divine grace. Thus, all people are like Adam when he was created, and all are free to obey or disobey God.
This bad-example view is flawed, since it does not adequately grasp the sinfulness of people after Adam’s fall (Eph. 2:1, 5). It also does not do justice to the comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12–21. Further, if Adam is only a bad example, does this mean that Christ is only a good example and that we are left to save ourselves? Judging by Pelagius’s reliance on the freedom of the human will for salvation, one has to answer affirmatively. His condemnation for heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 is therefore justified.
INHERITED SINFUL NATURE
The idea of an inherited sinful nature affirms that all people do receive a corrupt and sinful nature from Adam. Adam’s offspring are conceived with a disposition that is bent toward sin. This understanding makes a real connection between Adam and the transmission of sinfulness. Adam actually passes on a corrupt nature to the human race. Yet Adam’s guilt is not placed on others. So pollution or corruption from Adam is passed on naturally to a person, but the guilt for Adam’s sin is not. Some who hold this view acknowledge that the inherited sinful nature is enough to render a person condemned by God as a sinner, but they maintain that such condemnation is not on account of Adam’s guilt being imputed or reckoned to his descendants.
Variations of this perspective exist among Arminians, who have asserted that both Adam’s guilt and corruption pass to all descendants of Adam but that prevenient grace removes the guilt and depravity coming from Adam. No one besides Adam is held responsible for what Adam did. A person only becomes responsible as a sinner when he chooses to sin.
This view has been criticized for not going far enough. While rightly affirming that all persons have a corrupt nature from Adam, it does not recognize that Adam’s sin directly brings guilt to all people. Paul said, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18), an inherently legal term that establishes guilt. This verse teaches, therefore, that people receive more than just a corrupt nature, since Adam’s trespass leads to condemnation. All humans are constituted sinners by his action (Rom. 5:19). Also, the Arminian concept of prevenient grace, which removes or neutralizes guilt from Adam, has no scriptural support.
Also known as the Augustinian or seminal view, realism asserts that all humanity was physically present in Adam when he sinned. As the first man, Adam collectively represented human nature, of which Adam’s descendants are all a part. And all were in Adam in seed form when he sinned. This means that Adam’s descendants were in Adam’s loins participating in his sin. And since everyone participated in Adam’s sin, all people are morally guilty and condemned for doing so. Thus, both the corrupt nature and guilt are passed down naturally from Adam.
Support for the realism view is drawn from Hebrews 7:9–10: “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.” Levi was a great-grandson of Abraham, yet Levi paid tithes through his great-grandfather Abraham, since Levi was “still in the loins of his ancestor [Abraham] when Melchizedek met him.” Here a distant descendant of Abraham is said to have actively paid tithes through Abraham. The action of Abraham was the action of Levi, and this could also be true for descendants of Adam, who sinned when Adam sinned.
The realism view affirms that the connection between Adam’s sin and the sin of humanity is more than just a bad example from Adam or an inherited sin nature. Instead, all people actually participated in Adam’s sin. So the guilt and condemnation are deserved because all actually sinned. Realism offers an explanation as to how all people can appropriately be guilty for Adam’s sin. When Adam sinned, all sinned in him. If that is so, advocates say, no one can make the charge that “innocent” people are wrongly imputed with Adam’s sin, since everyone actually participated in his transgression.
However, it does not fall to us to sit in judgment on the “appropriateness” of God’s legal declarations. The supposition that it would be unjust to impute Adam’s sin to man unless we had “actually participated” in Adam’s transgression does violence to the parallel between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12–21. No one questions the “appropriateness” of the forensic imputation of righteousness to sinners. We would not say that sinners are wrongly imputed with Christ’s righteousness unless they actually participated, seminally, in his obedience.
And, of course, we did not. The union between Christ and his people is not a seminal union, for Christ fathered no physical children. Rather, it is a legal union. As our representative, Christ’s obedience is counted—legally imputed or judicially reckoned—by God to be our obedience. For the parallel between the first and last Adam to hold together (Rom. 5:12–21; cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), Adam’s sin must be transmitted in the same manner as Christ’s righteousness is. Therefore, because Adam was the representative of all humanity, his disobedience is counted—legally imputed or judicially reckoned—by God to be the disobedience of all who were in him. Those who would charge that such imputation is wrong or inappropriate because not everyone actually participated in Adam’s sin show their inconsistency when they do not make the same charge against the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The former draws objections because it is punishment, while the latter is excused because it is a gift. As John Murray explains,
The analogy instituted in Romans 5:12–19 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22) presents a formidable objection to the realist construction. It is admitted by the realist that there is no “realistic” union between Christ and the justified.… On realist premises, therefore, a radical disparity must be posited between the character of the union that exists between Adam and his posterity, on the one hand, and the union that exists between Christ and those who are his, on the other.… But there is no hint of that kind of discrepancy that would obtain if the distinction between the nature of the union in the two cases were as radical as realism must suppose.… [And] the case is not merely that there is no hint of this kind of difference; the sustained parallelism militates against any such supposition.… This sustained emphasis not only upon the one man Adam and the one man Christ but also upon the one trespass, and the one righteous act points to a basic identity in respect of modus operandi.
The most acceptable position is that Adam’s sin is imputed to all who were united to him as the representative of humanity. Adam’s guilt is our guilt. While affirming that a corrupt nature is passed down from Adam, representative headship teaches that all people are condemned because of their direct relationship to Adam.
The representative-headship view (often called federal headship) asserts that the action of a representative is determinative for all members united to him. When Adam sinned, he represented all people; therefore, his sin is reckoned to his descendants.
An example of headship affecting others is found in Joshua 7 with Achan and his family. Israel’s defeat at Ai was attributed to Achan, who disobeyed God by wrongly confiscating silver and gold for himself in his tent. While Achan alone committed this sinful action, his sons and daughters were stoned with him, bearing the punishment along with Achan for his deed (Josh. 7:24–25). In like manner, the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed or placed on the rest of the family of mankind.
Those who affirm the representative-headship view first appeal to the parallels made with Jesus in Romans 5:12–21 (discussed above under the realism view). Romans 5:18 says that Jesus’s “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Jesus’s act of dying on the cross brings justification to sinners. Romans 5:19 adds, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Jesus’s obedience is imputed to others as their righteousness. The logic here suggests that if the justification and righteousness of the Lord Jesus is imputed to those in him, so too the guilt of Adam’s sin has been imputed to those he represented. As already stated, the Adam-Christ parallel in Romans 5:12–21 is best explained by the idea of representation. Just as Christians are considered righteous because Christ’s alien righteousness (i.e., righteousness that is external to the believer) is imputed to all who are Christ’s, so too Adam’s guilt is imputed to all his descendants, even though they did not personally sin when he did.
Adherents of this view also appeal to 1 Corinthians 15:22, which says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” This verse shows that death and life are linked with Adam and Christ as two representatives of mankind. In addition, Romans 5:14 states that “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam.” This verse explicitly teaches that Adam’s offspring did not commit Adam’s sin. So Adam relates to his offspring as their representative head, and thus the act of Adam is imputed to others, even though the others did not actually commit the sin that Adam did.
In sum, both men—Adam and Christ—are seen as representatives of humanity, and for both, the effects of their actions are placed on others. Adam is the representative of sinful humanity, and Jesus is the representative of righteous humanity. Significantly, while this view emphasizes imputation via headship with Adam, it also encompasses inherited corruption passed on from Adam to the whole of humanity.
The representative view was promoted by Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) and became popular among many in the tradition of covenant theology, who connect this perspective with an alleged “covenant of works,” in which Adam as the head of the human race was tasked with perfect obedience for the goal of obtaining eternal life. When Adam violated this so-called covenant of works, he failed on behalf of all mankind, so that his sin was counted as the failure of all his descendants. Nonetheless, not all covenantalists who affirm federal headship tie it to a covenant of works. For example, Anthony Hoekema declared, “Although … I rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works, this does not imply the rejection of direct imputation, as long as we maintain that Adam was indeed the head and representative of the human race.” Hoekema was right to reject a covenant of works as the orienting principle for federal headship, since Scripture makes no mention of a covenant of works.
Though historically referred to as federal headship, the label representative headship is preferable since it better conveys the fact that both Adam and Christ act as the legal representatives for those who are reckoned to be in them. As explained above, this position makes the best sense out of the parallels between Adam and Christ articulated in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.
Some suggest that the representative-headship view is contrary to the strong scriptural testimony that children will not be held accountable for the sins of their fathers. For example, Deuteronomy 24:16 declares, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Ezekiel 18:20 adds, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” However, there is no real connection between the doctrine of original sin and these passages, which address the guilt and punishment for personal sin.
Old Self and New Self
The relationship of Adam and Jesus Christ to humanity is also connected to the concepts of “old self” and “new self,” found twice in Paul’s letters:
… to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22–24)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col. 3:9–10)
The Greek word for “self” in both passages is anthropos and refers to “man.” Some justifiably translate these as “old man” and “new man.”
Paul is making a contrast with significant implications. In Colossians 3:9–10, he reminds his Christian readers that the old self has been put off while the new self has been put on. This is a statement of fact, not a command. Christians are no longer the old self but are now the new self. This change occurred when they believed in Christ.
In regard to Ephesians 4:22–24, debate exists as to whether Paul is commanding his readers to put off the old self and put on the new self or whether he is stating a fact that Christians are already a new self, much like Colossians 3:9–10. Either way, Paul is emphasizing that in Christ a transformation has occurred. Christians have gone from being the old self to being the new self. And they are to live in light of this reality.
But what does Paul mean by “old self [man]” and “new self [man],” and how does this relate to the doctrines of man and sin? The old self is the unregenerate self, connected with Adam. It encompasses everything a person is in Adam before union with Christ. The new self is the regenerate self, united with Christ, who replaces the old man. When a person becomes a Christian, he puts on the new self and becomes a “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). He is no longer the old man. The unregenerate self in Adam is gone forever. The new self in Christ is reality. Yet since glorification of the body has not occurred and Christians still struggle with the flesh, believers must continually put aside fleshly desires. They must walk by the power of the Holy Spirit so they do “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
These paradigms of “old man” and “new man” are important distinctions contrasting humanity in Adam and humanity in Christ. One is either in Adam or in Christ; no other option exists. According to Romans 5:18–19, being in Adam means death, guilt, and condemnation. Being in Christ, however, means life, justification, and righteousness.
The Bible teaches what has been called total (or pervasive) depravity to describe the corruption and pollution of sin passed down from Adam. Total depravity emphasizes the devastating impact of sin on the person and covers three related concepts: (1) the pollution and corruption of all aspects of a person; (2) the complete inability of a person to please God; and (3) universality, in that all are conceived and born as sinners. Together these show the abysmal state of unredeemed humanity, all of whom are both unable and unwilling to glorify God.
Total depravity does not mean that unsaved people always act as badly as possible. Nor does it mean that unsaved people cannot do relative acts of goodness. Unbelievers can do good things for society, their friends, and their family. They can stop a fight, give to charity, perform life-saving surgery. They can help a lost child find her parents. These acts have a relative goodness, which corresponds with what Jesus said: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children …” (Matt. 7:11).
Concerning the first feature, sin is total or pervasive in that all components of a person are polluted by sin. Just as smoke from a fire permeates everything in a room, the whole person is corrupted by sin. No part of man escapes. This includes both the material and immaterial aspects of a person—body and soul. The body decays and is headed for physical death, and along the way, the body functions as an instrument for evil activity. The spiritual part of man is also fully corrupt. This includes all of man’s thinking, reason, desires, and affections. Thus Paul concludes, “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Speaking of the godless, Paul refers to “the futility of their minds” (Eph. 4:17). The heart is also debased; so Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jesus also teaches that it is from the heart that wicked deeds occur (Mark 7:21–23). On multiple occasions the Bible addresses both corrupt thinking and an evil heart. Paul said, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18). Also, sinful mankind “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). John Calvin rightly stated, “We are so entirely controlled by the power of sin, that the whole mind, the whole heart, and all our actions are under its influence.”
Second, sin is total in that man is incapable of pleasing God on his own. Paul states, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7–8). And Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Third, sin is universal in that all humans are sinners. First Kings 8:46 declares, “For there is no one who does not sin.” And Psalm 14:3 states, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” The entire section of Romans 1:18–3:20 is dedicated to showing that all people are sinners and unable to save themselves, concluding that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Therefore, man’s spiritual state is not one of relative neutrality, in which he is able to accept or reject God and his gospel. He is an active hater of God (Rom. 8:7) who cannot accept spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14). The total depravity of man demonstrates the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation. Man can do nothing. God must accomplish all as a gift of sovereign grace.
Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?
The Unpardonable Sin
Sin Leading to Death
Are There Mortal and Venial Sins?
Sin and the Christian
The Coming Man of Sin
God and the Problem of Evil
Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?
Are all sins the same in God’s eyes, or are some sins worse than others? All sins are the same in the sense that each renders a person guilty and worthy of God’s wrath. The root of all sin is autonomy and replacement of God with self. However small a sin may seem, it is an assertion that the person is acting independently of God. Eating fruit from a tree in a garden, like Adam and Eve did, might not seem immoral and may seem minor compared to other crimes, but it was an act of iniquity that had grave consequences for the human race. Breaking any command is an assault against the divine Lawgiver. James declared, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11). Grudem is correct that “in terms of our legal standing before God, any one sin, even what may seem to be a very small one, makes us legally guilty before God and therefore worthy of eternal punishment.” Even one sin against an infinitely holy God demands an infinite punishment.
At the same time, Scripture does speak of the reality that some sins are considered greater than others. When being shown abominations in the temple, Ezekiel was told, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit” (Ezek. 8:13). Here some abominations were “greater” than others. Jesus explained that those who delivered him to Pilate committed “the greater sin” (John 19:11). In Matthew 11:20–24, Jesus said that the Jewish cities that heard the kingdom message would fare worse on judgment day than the Gentile cities that did not. Greater knowledge brings greater responsibility. In Luke 12:47–48, Jesus taught that a servant who knew the Master’s will but did not do it would be treated more harshly than one who did not know the Master’s will. Also, James said that a stricter judgment awaits teachers: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
These two biblical realities are harmonized by considering that there is both a quantitative and a qualitative aspect to sin and punishment. All mankind is guilty of sinning against an infinitely holy God. Therefore, all who die without repenting and trusting in Christ face the same quantitatively eternal punishment for their sins. And yet, because God is strictly just, he will punish those who have committed qualitatively greater offenses with a qualitatively greater punishment. The character of their suffering will be exactly proportional to the crimes they’ve committed (e.g., 2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13).
The Unpardonable Sin
Jesus says that there is a sin that will never be forgiven:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt. 12:31–32)
What is this unforgivable or unpardonable sin? The context for Jesus’s statement is his confrontations with the contentious Pharisees in Matthew 12. In 12:1–21, Jesus was accused of acting unlawfully on the Sabbath, and in answering the Pharisees, he declared that he had authority over the Sabbath because he was the Lord of the Sabbath (12:8). In 12:22–24, the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus responded on several levels. First, he noted that if he cast out demons by Satan, then Satan would be working against himself. Not only did this strategy make no sense, it was also doomed to failure (12:25–26). Second, Jewish exorcists also cast out demons (12:27). So why did the Jewish leaders accept these exorcists but not Jesus? Third, the truth was that Jesus cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate that the kingdom had come upon the people (12:28). This was the correct significance of his miracles. Casting out demons by the Holy Spirit showed that God’s kingdom was at work through the Messiah.
Jesus then spoke of the unforgivable sin (12:30–32), which involved blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This sin could not be forgiven either in the present age or in the coming age. This sin was more than making offhand, derogatory statements about Jesus or the Holy Spirit from a distance or from ignorance. It involved disparaging the clear works that the Holy Spirit was doing through the Son of God. The unpardonable sin, therefore, is the willful and final rejection of the Holy Spirit who is working through Jesus, by attributing God’s work in Christ to Satan. For the hostile religious leaders in Matthew 12, this was a determined and final unbelief in the face of clear revelation. After seeing firsthand what the Lord had done and hearing his teaching, these leaders made the final conclusion that he was Satanic—exactly the opposite of the truth. Such terminal rejection could not be pardoned. Since the conditions necessary for committing the unpardonable sin were limited to Jesus’s earthly ministry, the sin itself was restricted to the time period of his career on earth.
But is there any parallel to the unpardonable sin beyond Jesus’s earthly ministry? The answer could be yes. The main issue with the unpardonable sin was hardened and willful unbelief in spite of the clear testimony of the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 6:4–6 refers to those who have “once been enlightened” and have been made “partakers of the Holy Spirit.” Yet they are warned against falling away from the faith, since “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” This passage refers to people who had great knowledge of the Holy Spirit. They saw the Spirit work miracles through the apostles (Heb. 2:3–4), but they stopped short of committing to Jesus. By persisting in unbelief, they were in danger of reaching a point of no return. Even today, it is possible for people to know the gospel and continually reject it. Such people are apostates who are beyond repentance and grace (Heb. 10:26–31).
The reality is that all who reject the Lord Jesus in this life, never embracing him in saving faith, cannot be pardoned, since forgiveness is only offered to those who believe in him. Though the unpardonable sin described in Matthew 12 involved final hardness of heart against Jesus when he was on earth, the unrepentant rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ is always a sin that remains unforgiven, since forgiveness is found only through repentant faith in Christ. Conversely, anyone who comes to Christ in true repentance and genuine faith will be forgiven (cf. John 6:37; Rom. 10:9).
Sin Leading to Death
In 1 John 5:16, the apostle mentions two types of sin concerning a fellow Christian (“brother”). First, he says that there is a sin that does not lead to death. And second, he speaks of a sin that does lead to death:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.
Of particular interest is the “sin that leads to death.” What sin is this? One answer offered is that John is referring to a professing believer who demonstrates through habitual sin that he is not an authentic Christian (1 John 3:6). So the sin in question concerns an unbeliever’s sin that leads to eternal death. Such a rejection of Jesus has the same consequence as that committed by the Jewish leaders who attributed Jesus’s miracles to the power of Satan (Matt. 12:31–32). Apostasy is unforgivable. Praying for restoration in this case is futile because God has already set the rejecter’s future (Heb. 6:6).
Another view is that the sin leading to death could refer to a true believer whose life, like that of some at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:29–30), brought shame to Christ, and thus God’s discipline resulted in premature death. The Christian’s sin is so serious that God takes the person’s life. For example, Ananias and Sapphira died on the spot when they lied to the Holy Spirit in front of the church (Acts 5:1–11). Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul mandated discipline for a sinning church member involved in immorality: “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” If a Christian is under church discipline, believers in the church should not pray for the consequences of such discipline to be removed until the sinner repents. With the goal that this person will repent, the church delivers him or her to Satan’s realm. The sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16, then, is not one particular sin but any sin that the Lord determines is serious enough for drastic chastisement.
Both of these views reflect biblical truth, and it is difficult to know with certainty which one John intended. In both cases, John concludes that prayer for those committing a sin leading to death will not end as one might anticipate because the prayer is not in accord with God’s will (1 John 5:14–15).
Are There Mortal and Venial Sins?
The Roman Catholic Church promotes the concepts of mortal sins and venial sins. Allegedly, mortal sins result in the spiritual death of the soul. They are intentional and grave sins such as murder, adultery, and fornication. If a person dies with a mortal sin on his soul, he is lost forever. The remedy for a mortal sin is the sacrament of penance, which brings a person back into relationship with God. A venial sin is a lesser or forgivable sin that does not break fellowship with God or result in the soul being eternally separated from God. For example, while intentional slander is a mortal sin, a person who says something unkind in a moment without much reflection could be guilty of a venial sin.
The Bible does not affirm the Roman Catholic ideas of mortal and venial sins—or the sacramental, penitential context in which they are understood. All sins establish legal guilt, and without faith in Christ sinners are worthy of eternal separation from God. The two categories of mortal and venial sins operate within a faulty view of salvation, in which justification is viewed as a process during which a person can commit certain sins that remove him from a relationship with God, while other sins do not sever that fellowship. The biblical view is that at the moment of saving faith, the Christian is declared righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ (Rom. 4:3–5). All sins are forgiven so that nothing can separate the Christian from fellowship with God (Rom. 8:1, 38–39). Furthermore, the Roman Catholic idea of meritorious penance as necessary for the removal of a mortal sin is an error that strikes at the sufficiency of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice for sin. Rather than looking to his own acts of penance, the Christian looks to Christ’s sacrifice as the full payment for all his sin (Heb. 10:10–18).
Sin and the Christian
What is the effect of a Christian sinning? The Bible does not teach perfectionism in this life or before the resurrection, so Christians will sin. First John 1:8 states, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But when a person trusts in Christ, he receives both forgiveness of sins and Christ’s righteousness. As a result, Paul declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3), so all sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven. God, who began a good work in us, will be faithful to complete what he started (Phil. 1:6). Sin will not remove a Christian from God’s love; indeed, Paul says that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
However, while instances of personal sin cannot break the believer’s union with Christ, they do have a negative impact on the believer’s communion with Christ. When Christians sin, they grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). Sin also brings God’s discipline. Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). In addition, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6). Christians should examine themselves for sin and be open to loving exhortation and rebuke from other believers (Gal. 6:1). Jesus instituted a church discipline process for dealing with sin in the life of a professing Christian (Matt. 18:15–20). Unrepentant sin should lead to expulsion from the church, so that the church maintains its purity (1 Cor. 5:13).
Sin in the life of a Christian is a serious matter. It harms one’s spiritual growth and testimony for Christ. While Christians will never face judicial punishment for sins, they will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for their deeds done in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10). The dross will be burned away, and the eternal reward will reflect what remains (1 Cor. 3:12–15).
The Coming Man of Sin
Sin has a devastating and deadly impact on humanity’s past and present. Will the future be any different? Before Christ’s second coming, the Bible predicts a specific “man of sin,” an ultimate Antichrist figure, who will be the consummate embodiment of sin and evil. During the coming day of the Lord, this person will be Satan’s counterfeit to the Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 2:3–4). Jesus is the God-man who is the embodiment of righteousness and love. But Satan’s man will be the opposite. Paul called him “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3).
The conditions surrounding this “man of lawlessness” are detailed in 2 Thessalonians 2. There Paul refuted the erroneous belief that the “day of the Lord” had already started. He revealed that two events would coincide with the coming of the day of the Lord, and since neither of them had occurred, the day of the Lord could not yet have arrived. The first event would be a massive rebellion in which a great apostasy against God would occur. The second would be the arrival of the man of sin who would oppose God and demand worship of himself:
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thess. 2:3–4)
The word for “lawlessness” comes from the Greek term anomia, which means “against law” or “lawless.” In this context it means “to be opposed to God’s law and purposes.” The coming man of lawlessness will embody flagrant rebellion against God and will be known as “the son of destruction” (2 Thess. 2:3). Earlier, Jesus said that Satan comes to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10); so too will this representative of Satan.
The 2 Thessalonians passage goes on to describe the activity of this man of sin. He will oppose God and exalt himself against every object of worship, including the true God. He will demand that only he be worshiped (2 Thess. 2:4). He will also sit in God’s temple in Jerusalem and declare himself to be God (see Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:15). While the Holy Spirit currently restrains this wicked figure from appearing, he will “be revealed in his time,” when the Spirit ceases to restrain him (2 Thess. 2:6). This does not mean that sin is not already in operation, because “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thess. 2:7). But when the restrainer is removed, “then the lawless one will be revealed” (2 Thess. 2:8). His work will encompass these activities: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thess. 2:9–10). The eschatological man of lawlessness will do his work “by the activity of Satan.” Just as Jesus did his miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit, this man will be empowered by Satan. He will come with “false signs and wonders” that further the “wicked deception” of lost people who are perishing.
The man of sin will have a short career: “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). Satan’s man will be thrown into the lake of fire, and his reign of wickedness will be replaced by the kingdom of righteousness, ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ (Isaiah 11; Zechariah 4).
God and the Problem of Evil
The reality of evil and suffering is used by some as a reason for rejecting God. Allegedly, if God were all-good and all-powerful, then evil and suffering would not exist. But contrary to disproving God, the existence of evil and suffering can be adequately explained only from a Christian worldview rooted in the biblical perspective of creation and the fall. More on theodicy—the defense of God in light of the problem of evil—is found in chapter 3 (“The Problem of Evil and Theodicy,” p. 221) and in chapter 7 (“The Decree of God and the Problem of Evil,” p. 491; “The Justification of God,” p. 509). But some comments are appropriate here in light of sin’s role in producing evil and suffering.
One must remember that God is the sovereign King of the universe who does as he wills without needing to answer to man (Rom. 9:20). God is not on trial, and any apparent contradictions between God’s existence and the reality of evil are simply that—apparent, not real. With this reality understood, several points can help one understand evil and suffering.
First, God created the world and called everything in it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). No sin or death existed during creation week. These were introduced later by Adam (Genesis 3; Rom. 5:12). God told Adam that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would bring death (Gen. 2:15–17), but Adam nevertheless willfully disobeyed his Creator, to whom he was accountable. The responsibility for sin lies at the feet of sinful man. God is not the chargeable cause of evil (cf. Rom. 3:5–6; 9:14).
Second, when Adam disobeyed God, Adam introduced both moral and natural evil into the world. By sinning against God, man brought hostility into human relationships and moral evil into creation. Sin also affected the natural order. Since man was the pinnacle of creation and was tasked with ruling and subduing the rest of creation, his sin impacted all nature. God cursed the ground because of man’s sin, and thus, nature now works against man (Gen. 3:17). Paul says that creation was subjected to futility against its will (Rom. 8:20). So responsibility for the fallen world lies with man, not God.
But why doesn’t God simply fix the world or intervene to stop tragedies and acts of evil? Part of the answer is that mankind is experiencing the consequences for sin. He is facing the mess he created. God made man his vice-regent, and man possessed everything he needed to rule the earth successfully. Yet when he sinned, God was not bound to shield man from the consequences of his rebellion.
Third, God has not left man alone to wallow and suffer without hope. He introduced a promise to restore creation and defeat the evil power behind the serpent (Gen. 3:15), a plan that ultimately culminates in Jesus Christ and will be fulfilled by his first and second comings. Also, God brings undeserved common goodness to mankind (Matt. 5:45). He restrains evil (2 Thess. 2:7), and he instituted the conscience to restrict sinner’s freedom (Rom. 2:14–15) and human government to punish evildoers (Rom. 13:1–7). God himself also experienced the effects of a fallen world when Jesus became a “man of sorrows” (Isa. 53:3) who lived, suffered, and died on a cross as a sin bearer under divine wrath. Jesus’s death and resurrection laid the foundation for the coming restoration of all things (Col. 1:20; Rev. 5:9–10). No one can rightly say that God is a detached observer to evil and suffering. Jesus left heaven and suffered as no person has ever suffered in order to deliver sinners from eternal suffering.
Finally, a judgment day is coming when God will make all things right. He will reward what is right and punish what is wrong. All the thoughts and actions of all people will be judged immediately. Paul noted that when Jesus comes, he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:5). The righteous, who have received salvation in Christ, will experience glory far beyond the sufferings of this life. Paul said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). This truth gives eternal perspective to our temporal sufferings in this fallen world. A day is coming when all tears of sorrow will be removed and when death will be no more (Rev. 21:3). Believers will experience the joys of a new earth forever, and sin will forever cease. As Paul explained, “The sting of death is sin.… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56–57). And all the children of God will be forever loved by God as he has always loved his eternal Son (John 17:24–26).
Biblical Theology of Sin
Many issues regarding sin have already been examined in this chapter, but it is important to conclude with a summary of the biblical doctrine of sin. Both angels and humans were created with volition and the ability to obey or sin against God. Satan committed the first sin in the cosmos by desiring and aspiring to elevate himself above God. One third of the angels, now known as demons, chose to follow him in his rebellion. The sin of Satan did not bring sin and death into the world, but Satan would tempt man to sin, which would lead to death.
God warned Adam that he would die if he disobeyed by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God did not tempt Adam or force him to sin against his will, but he did present Adam with a choice to obey or disobey. In Genesis 3, a tempting serpent appeared, empowered by the already-fallen angel Satan. The serpent tempted Eve to sin by casting doubt on God’s Word and telling her she could be like God if she ate from the forbidden tree. Eve and then Adam ate of the tree. This disobedient act of autonomy led to fear, shame, avoidance of God, and the blaming of another. Sin introduced death and the curse into the world.
Adam and Eve died spiritually, and their bodies became subject to decay and death. Conflict was also introduced into the man-woman relationship and into all other relationships, as shown when their firstborn son murdered their second son. In addition, the creation was cursed, and man’s ability to fulfill his commission to rule the earth was turned to constant failure. Instead of governing a submissive and pliable earth, the ground fought back to frustrate man and consume him in death. Sin makes man a failure both in his relationships and in his ability to function as ruler of the earth on God’s behalf.
Genesis 3:15 offered the first promise of hope for cursed man. God predicted a coming seed of the woman who would reverse the curse and defeat the satanic power behind the serpent. Sin resulted in a struggle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, but Satan and his followers would one day be defeated by one person coming from Eve. Eve thought that her first son, Cain, could be the man who would deliver the human race (Gen. 4:1). But Cain was a killer himself. Noah’s father, Lamech, believed that Noah could be the promised savior (Gen. 5:28–29). But while Noah was greatly used by God, he was sinful and could not qualify to be the promised deliverer of Genesis 3:15.
The genealogy of death in Genesis 5 revealed that all the descendants of Adam except for Enoch died. At the time of Noah, God’s evaluation of man was that he was always wicked (Gen. 6:5, 11–13). God judged sinful mankind through the global flood, saving only Noah and his family and two of each animal (Genesis 7–8). With the Noahic covenant God promised not to destroy sinful man, so that God’s kingdom and salvation plans could play out (Gen. 8:20–9:17). After the flood, man rebelled against God at the Tower of Babel. Sinful men gathered to make a name for themselves and remained located in one place, against God’s mandate to cover the earth (Gen. 11:1–9), but God punished the human race by separating them linguistically.
The sequence of events in Genesis 1–11 revealed that sin remained mankind’s primary problem. The global flood punished the world of sinners but could not remove sin since it dwelt in the hearts of men. The wait for a Deliverer and Savior from sin continued. The plan for defeating sin advanced when God chose Abraham and the great nation (Israel) to come from him. Together they were to be God’s chosen means for blessing and saving the world (Gen. 12:2–3; 22:18). Abraham was a great man, yet he too was sinful and was unable to be the savior himself (Gen. 20:2). The people of Israel multiplied numerically, and after the exodus from Egypt, they received the Mosaic covenant and became a nation. The Passover event, in which the blood of a lamb protected the people from death, pictured the coming sacrifice of the one Deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5:7).
Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, and Israel’s obedience to God should have been a witness to the nations (Ex. 19:6; Deut. 4:5–6). Instead, Israel sinned egregiously against God in the worship of the golden calf and continued to violate the Mosaic covenant. Israel deteriorated greatly after Solomon’s idolatry (1 Kings 11) and was on a trajectory for division and dispersion. Not only did the people of Israel fail, but also the kings in the line of David—who were supposed to model obedience to God—showed themselves to be sinful failures.
The prophets rebuked Israel for continually disobeying the Mosaic covenant and thus God himself. They predicted coming dispersions to the nations. But hope came as Isaiah foretold a future servant of Israel who would sacrificially atone for the sins of Israel and bring salvation to the Gentiles (Isa. 49:3–6; 52:13–53:12). The solution to man’s sin problem was to be remedied by the righteous servant who would take on himself the guilt of others’ sins. He would suffer divine judgment in their place (Isaiah 53).
This servant appeared at the opening of the New Testament in the person of Jesus, the Deliverer and sinless Savior. A descendant of Abraham and David, Jesus is both Messiah and King. And John the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John the Baptist and Jesus preached the same word: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). This message showed that entrance into the Messiah’s kingdom required repentance from sin. Jesus said that he came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), and with his death, Jesus atoned for the sins of his people as a sacrificial substitute (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).
The apostle Paul revealed that all people, whether Jew or Gentile, are sinners and unable to save themselves (Rom. 1:18–3:20). Salvation from sin may be found and received but only through faith in Jesus and the righteousness he gives (Rom. 3:21–5:21). Jesus’s suffering and the new covenant established by his death break the power of sin for all who are united with him (Rom. 6:1–8:17). Believers in the Lord Jesus are saved from sin and receive spiritual and eternal life. They are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Yet the removal of death and of the effects of sin from the physical body awaits the return of the Savior and the resurrection (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:20–24).
While Jesus conquered death at the cross, the final defeat of sin awaits the future. The coming day of the Lord will be a time when God judges and punishes sinners on the earth (Isa. 13:9, 11). An impending man of sin and lawlessness will appear in connection with the day of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit will cease his restraining ministry to allow this man of sin to be revealed and lawlessness to run its course (2 Thess. 2:1–12). Yet this man of sin, along with all who follow him, will be destroyed by Jesus when he returns to earth (Rev. 19:11–21).
The kingdom of the Lord Jesus will be positively characterized by righteousness and blessings to the nations. It will also be a rule with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9), and all who disobey King Jesus will be punished (Isa. 65:20; Zech. 14:16–19). The millennial reign of the Messiah and his saints will be the fulfillment of the successful kingdom reign that God expected from Adam and humanity at creation (Gen. 1:26–28). After Jesus’s thousand-year kingdom, one final rebellion will occur, as Satan is released from the Abyss to lead a last revolt against the Lord at Jerusalem. Remaining unbelievers will join this revolt but will all be instantly destroyed by fire from heaven (Rev. 20:7–10). Even with Satan’s presence removed and perfect order set in place during the millennial kingdom, sinners’ hearts will be corrupt, and when given the opportunity, those who reject Christ in that period will join in that final rebellion. Afterward, all unbelievers will be gathered for the great white throne judgment. Their judgment will be based on deeds, but since no deeds can save, they will all be sent to the lake of fire forever. Sin will never occur again, and the saints of God will reign forever in God’s presence on the new earth (Rev. 22:3–5). Sin and its effects will be removed forever (Rev. 21:3–4). All will be glory, peace, joy, and love.
Father, thank You for the vital truth
that Your Spirit transforms us.
We know that the transformed life is a fruit,
not the cause, of our salvation.
You are the One who chose and drew us,
and Christ is both the Author and Finisher of our faith.
His work is the sole ground and reason for our justification.
We’re not saved because of any merit or goodness of our own,
for we have none.
But we likewise know that when You give us a standing by faith in Christ,
You completely transform us.
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature;
the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
Your Spirit gives us new hearts.
From the moment of our conversion, He indwells us,
and through His living presence in our hearts,
You are steadily conforming us to the image of Christ.
We understand, of course,
that we will never attain sinless perfection in this life,
because we won’t fully be like Christ
until we finally see Him face-to-face.
But when we sin, we know that we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous.
We thank You that He is pleading for us even now,
seeking our welfare before Your throne
with prayers that put our paltry prayers to shame.
Your Spirit likewise intercedes for us,
with groaning that cannot be uttered.
More and more, Lord, we are conscious of our guilt,
and ashamed of our sin.
Help us therefore to bless You more and more
for Your steadfast love toward us.
Empower us more and more
to serve You with faithfulness and joy.
Above all, make us more and more like Christ.
And remind us, Lord, that we are now slaves of righteousness
rather than slaves of sin.
We come before You humbly,
grateful for Your mercy and thankful for the transformation
that has caused us to love and do the things that please You.
O God, our Creator and Lord,
we delight in Your righteousness and wisdom.
We have been blessed by Your mercy and grace.
We rejoice in Your lovingkindness and compassion
toward sinners like us.
Though we are totally unworthy of Your favor,
You graciously saved us from the guilt and condemnation
of our own sin.
Our judgment was rendered on Christ at Calvary,
who put away our sins by the sacrifice of Himself,
and You raised Him from the dead
as affirmation of His great accomplishment.
Your mercy and grace were thus secured for us
by Christ our Savior.
That is why we desire to honor Him through our service.
But may we never think of our own works as meritorious—
or even as worthy supplements to His finished work.
We confess that our best service
is altogether unprofitable,
and when we have rendered our best obedience,
we are still merely unworthy slaves
who have done no more than that which we ought to do.
May we therefore forever rely only on Christ,
trust in Him,
and serve Him faithfully but humbly.
We repudiate our sins and trust in Your ongoing cleansing and forgiveness.
Enable us to live in a way
that draws others to the glories of Christ,
in whose name we pray. Amen.
“Grace Greater than Our Sin”
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt,
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within!
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!
Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
Threaten the soul with infinite loss;
Grace that is greater, yes, grace untold,
Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.
Dark is the stain that we cannot hide—
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide;
Whiter than snow you may be today.
Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace,
Freely bestowed on all who believe!
You that are longing to see His face,
Will you this moment His grace receive?
~Julia H. Johnston (1849–1919)
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 451–480). Crossway.