The Nature of Sin
Sin is the quality of any human action that causes it to fail to glorify the Lord fully, which was first present in the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which has corrupted all people except for Christ, and which leads to death, both bodily and spiritually.
Sin is the failure to keep God’s law and to uphold his righteousness, thus failing to glorify the Lord fully. While there are many different manifestations that sin can take, they are all rooted in the initial disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden. All those who have been born afterwards, other than Jesus Christ, have been born into sin and cannot escape the guilt and punishment that sin incurs apart from the freedom found in Christ. God did not create sin or the suffering which sin brings into the world, but God is sovereign over his world and provides a way to be reconciled to him, faith in his Messiah, Jesus.
The Bible uses many words for sin. Many are expressions that view sin as a failure or a “falling short” of a standard. In this sense, sin is a failure to keep God’s law (“lawlessness,” 1 John 3:4), a lack of God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:18), an absence of reverence for God (Rom. 1:18; Jude 15), a refusal to know (Eph. 4:18), and, most notably, a “coming short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Thus, sin is the quality of any human action that causes it to fail to glorify the Lord fully. More specifically, the biblical descriptions of sin can be further defined as a failure to glorify God and a rebellion against him (1 John 3:4; Rom. 1:18; 3:23; Eph. 4:18); as an offense against God and a violation of his law (Gen. 39:9; Ps. 51:4; Rom. 8:7; 1 John 3:4); as a willful act and a present state of human existence (Ezek. 18:4; Matt. 7:17); as personal and social (Josh. 7; Isa. 1:2–4; 10:1–4; Jer. 5:12, 28–29); as involving commission (a deed done), omission (a deed left undone), and imperfection (a deed done with wrong motives; Matt. 22:37); as a rouge element in creation (Gen. 1:31); as a failure to image the Creator to the world (Jer. 2:11–12; Rom. 1:23; 3:23; 8:20–22; 1 Cor. 1:18–25); as including guilt and pollution (Mark 7:21–23; Rom. 1:18; cf. 3:19–20; Eph. 2:3); as including thoughts (Exod. 20:17; Matt. 5:22, 28), words, (Isa. 6:5; James 3:1–18) and actions (Gal. 5:19–21); as deceit (Jer. 17:9; Heb. 3:12–13); and as having a beginning in history and an end in the future (1 Cor. 15:55–57; see John W. Mahony, “A Theology of Sin for Today,” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin).
Creation and Sin
At first glance, one might conclude that this first epoch of the biblical story has little to contribute to our understanding of sin. After all, sin is not even mentioned, but that silence speaks volumes! In particular, Genesis’s teaching about God’s creation clarifies two critical principles related to sin (see Christopher W. Morgan, “Sin in the Biblical Story,” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin).
First, sin is not something created or authored by God. Rather, God created a good universe and good human beings. Genesis 1–2 shows the Creator to be transcendent, sovereign, personal, immanent, and good. God’s goodness is displayed in his turning the chaos into something good—the heavens and the earth. His goodness is even more clearly reflected in the goodness of his creation, evidenced by the steady refrain, “And God saw that it was good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), a goodness accentuated on the sixth day: “Behold, it was very good” (v. 31). God’s generous provisions of light, land, vegetation, and animals are blessings given for man’s benefit, as are the abilities to know God, work, marry, and procreate. God blesses man with the Sabbath, places him in the delightful garden of Eden, gives him a helper, and establishes only one prohibition, given not to stifle man but to promote his welfare.
The good God creates a good world for the good of his creatures. Humans are created good and blessed beyond measure, being made in God’s image, with an unhindered relationship with God and with freedom. As a result, casting blame for sin on the good and generous God is unbiblical and unfounded. In the beginning, God creates a good cosmos with good humans who have good relationships with God, themselves, one another, and creation itself.
Second, sin is not original. It has not always existed. From a theological standpoint, God’s creation of the universe out of nothing shows that he alone is independent, absolute, and eternal. Everything else has been created. Further, the inherent goodness of creation leaves no room for a fundamental dualism between spirit and matter. Contrary to some philosophical and religious traditions, the Bible teaches that matter is a part of God’s creation and is good. Sin is ethical, not physical or tied to the cosmos itself.
From a historical standpoint, the story of creation recounts that there was a time when there was no sin. Sin is not original. The world is not now the way it was and, as Cornelius Plantinga helpfully states, “is not the way it is supposed to be” (see Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin).
The Fall and Sin
God does not create sin but creates a good universe and good human beings. Sadly, Adam and Eve do not obey God’s command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil but “fall.” The Tempter calls into question God’s truthfulness, sovereignty, and goodness. The “cunning” Tempter deflects the woman’s attention from the covenantal relationship God had established. In the central scene, the fall reaches its climax. The fatal sequence unfolds rapidly: Eve “saw,” “took,” “ate,” and “gave” (Gen. 3:6), and the sequence culminates in “he ate.” But the forbidden fruit does not deliver what the Tempter promises, and instead brings new dark realities, as the good truthful covenant Lord had warned.
This initial rebellious act brings divine justice. The consequences of man’s sin are fitting and devastating. The couple immediately feel shame, realizing they are naked (3:7). They sense their estrangement from God, foolishly trying to hide from him (vv. 8–10). They fear God and his response (vv. 9–10). Their alienation from each other emerges as Eve blames the serpent, while Adam blames Eve and by intimation even God (vv. 10–13). Pain and sorrow ensue. The woman will experience pain in childbirth; the man will toil trying to grow food in a land with pests and weeds; and both will quickly discover dissonance in their relationship (vv. 15–19). Worse, God banishes them from Eden, away from his glorious presence (vv. 22–24).
How they wish they had heeded God’s warning: if you eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “you will certainly die” (2:17). Upon eating the forbidden fruit, they do not immediately die from something like cardiac arrest. But they do die. They die spiritually, and their bodies also begin to experience the gradual decay that leads ultimately to their physical deaths (as God’s judgment states, “you will return to dust”; 3:19).
Most devastating is that these consequences not only befall Adam and Eve but extend to their descendants as well. The scene is dismal, as life becomes difficult, with all of humanity shut out of the garden.
So, in the beginning, God creates a good cosmos with good humans who have good relationships with him, themselves, one another, and creation. But sin enters the picture and disrupts each human relationship—with God, self, one another, and creation.
Paul’s remarks in Romans 5:12–21 also shed light on the fall. Romans 5:12–21 is not primarily about sin, but it is instructive, setting Christ’s work against the backdrop of Adam’s sin. In Adam, sin enters, death spreads and reigns, and condemnation is sentenced. In contrast, in Christ there is righteousness, new life, and justification.
Sin is fundamentally against God and a failure to live as the image of God. Most fundamentally, sin must be defined as being against God. The accounts depicting the fall suggest that sin is rebellion against God, breaking his covenant, and failing to live as his image-bearers by serving as kings and priests according to his will and on his mission. As such, sin is exchanging the glory of the incorruptible God for something less, like idols (Rom. 1:23; cf. Ps. 106:20; Jer. 2:11–12). Sin is falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and brings disrepute on the name of God (2:24).
Sin enters the human experience in Adam’s sin. That sin is an intruder, entering the human experience in Adam’s sin, is clear historically from Genesis. That sin enters human history in Adam’s sin is also clear theologically from Romans 5:12: “Sin came into the world through one man.” Although clarity concerning the reason(s) for Adam’s sin remains out of reach, Scripture does indicate that Adam’s sin not only results in his own punishment but also has dire consequences for all humanity. Adam sins not merely as the first bad example but as the representative of all humanity. Recall Romans 5:12–21 and the contrast between Adam’s representation of us and Christ’s representation. In Adam, there is sin, death, and condemnation. In Christ, there is righteousness, life, and justification. In Adam, there is the old era, the dominion of sin and death. In Christ, there is a new reign, marked by grace and life (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20–57).
Sin is universal—no one escapes. That the fall of Adam results in universal human sinfulness is suggested by Genesis 3–11 and emphasized by Romans 5:12–21. In particular, verse 19 clarifies, “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.” This can also be seen through Paul’s insistence that no one is exempt, for all have sinned and fall short (Rom. 3:23); there are none righteous, not even one (3:10–18).
Sin produces universal human guilt and condemnation. Romans 5:12–21 displays this, particularly in verses 16 and 18: “The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation” (v. 16); “One trespass led to condemnation for all men” (v. 18). Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:1–3 speaks similarly: we were all “by nature children of wrath” (v. 3). Humans are universally guilty, in that state by nature (by birth, see Gal. 2:15), and thereby stand condemned under the wrath of God.
Sin begets universal human death. This is evident from Genesis, including God’s warning in 2:17: “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.” It is evident from God’s judgment upon 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” (3:19). The new entrance of death is also clear from the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden and from participation in the Tree of Life (vv. 22–24). That Adam’s sin results in the universality of human death is also manifest in Romans 5:12–21. Death enters human history through Adam’s sin (v. 12) and spreads to all (v. 12). Indeed, the universality of death clarifies that sin was in the world before the law was given (vv. 13–14). Paul puts it starkly, “Many died through one man’s trespass” (v. 15); “Sin reigned in death” (v. 21); and later, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (6:23).
Sin brings universal corruption. The corruption of all is directly related to the domain of sin and death just mentioned. Indeed, Romans 5:12–21 conjoins Adam’s sin, humans constituted as sinners, universal guilt, universal death, and the domain of death. The domain of sin and death is the macro-environmental condition in which life occurs; the particular human corruption is a part of the personal and individual aspects of the domain of sin and death.
Sin results in the reality of human suffering. As sin enters through Adam, so do its effects, suffering included. And just as God is not the author of sin, so is he not the author of suffering. Suffering is not a part of God’s good creation but is sin’s byproduct.
Sin creates shattered relationships at every level. As noted, God created a good cosmos with good human beings who had good relationships with God, themselves, one another, and creation. But sin entered the picture and brought disruption and estrangement in each human relationship, with God, self, one another, and creation.
The Good News
Indeed, “the biblical story sheds much light on sin. But clearly, sin is only the backdrop, never the point. It emerges in God’s good creation as a temporary intruder, causes much havoc, and holds many in its clutches. But it is no match for the work of God in Christ. Through his sinless life, sin-bearing death, sin-defeating resurrection, and sin-crushing second coming, sin and its offspring of suffering and death are given the death blow. Sin abounded, but grace super-abounds” Morgan, “Sin in the Biblical Story,” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin, 162).
- Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Fallen: A Theology of Sin
- Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
- D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil
- Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle
- Mark Thompson, “An Unavoidable Truth: The Doctrine of Sin Today”
- Wayne Grudem, “Sin” in Systematic Theology
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