The Origin of Sin
The question of the origin of Sin asks what was the cause of Adam’s sin, by which the human race fell from righteousness to condemnation and contemplates the relationship of sin’s coming into the world with the will of the good and holy Creator who is sovereign over all.
The Bible’s teaching of sin starts in the garden, where Adam violated God’s prohibition from eating from the forbidden tree. There, we discover that prior to man’s fall, sin existed in the form of the tempting serpent Satan. Yet as God created all things good, including the fallen angels, we inevitably must come to grips with God’s sovereignty, omniscience, and omnipotence with respect to the origin of sin. Balanced Bible teaching will show that God is not the author of sin, since in his holiness God is without any sin or evil of his own. Careful biblical reflection teaches that God willed sin in such a way that he remains morally perfect: God is never the primary but only the secondary cause in human sin. The attempt to make rational sense of sin will always run aground on the inherent irrationality of sin. Yet, at the cross of Jesus Christ, where God willed that his Son would be handed over to death by the hands of guilty sinners, we discover the best answer to questions about the origin of sin in the sovereign grace of God that glorifies him in the redemption of sinners.
What Caused Human Sin?
The question of the origin of sin holds importance because of what it tells us about both man and God. According to modern theories, man’s sin originates in his evolutionary origins. History is said to involve an ascent from savage beginnings, so that sin simply is seen as native to mankind’s nature. The effect of an evolutionary view of man is to normalize what the Bible calls sin as a simple necessity of our existence.
This modern approach to the origin of sin conflicts radically with the Bible in denying an original righteousness to Adam. Genesis 1:27 states that “God created man in his own image,” and this image implies personal holiness, righteousness, and thus freedom from the necessity of sin. Donald Macleod writes: “According to the Bible, man, as made by God, was upright. He was made in God’s image. He was absolutely sinless.”1 Man became a sinner, however, when Adam succumbed to temptation in the garden. In this important sense, man sinned when Adam willed to sin in his heart. Having been forbidden by God to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17–18), Adam ate the fruit and fell into sin (Gen 3:6). Sin therefore did not originate in the human nature as God made it but resulted when Adam was tempted by the evil serpent through his wife. Once Adam had sinned, the entire human race fell with him, losing the original righteousness of creation in God’s image (Gen 6:4), sharing Adam’s guilt (Rom 5:12, 18), and becoming corrupted with sin so that henceforth each individual human originates as a sinner (Ps 51:5).
Although we can trace the entry of human sin to Adam’s temptation and fall, we observe that Adam’s fall was preceded by the fall of the evil angels, chief of whom is Satan, who masqueraded in the garden as the serpent. For when Adam sinned, there was already a sinful angel present in the garden. The Bible does not clearly define the manner or time when the fall of the angels took place. But Jesus says that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44; see 1Jn 3:8), which most likely refers to the beginning of the creation account. Paul warns church leaders against becoming puffed up “with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1Tim 3:16), suggesting that Satan’s originating sin was a pride which resented the creation of man in God’s image. It stands to reason that Satan tempted Adam and Eve to be “like God” (Gen. 3:5) because this same discontented rebellion occasioned his own fall.
Sin and God’s Will
This biblical data brings us to the question of God’s relationship to the origin of sin. Herman Bavinck comments: “On the basis of Scripture, it is certain that sin did not first start on earth but in heaven, at the feet of God’s throne, in his immediate presence.”2 Does this mean that sin has its origin in God, or in God’s will?
Given the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, it is inconceivable that sin as either an act or a power could have originated apart from God’s will. Some thinkers have sought to exempt God from the implications of this reality. For instance, Immanuel Kant argued that God willed sin because it was necessary to the possibility of good in the world. Just as birds can only fly because of the contrary resistance of wind, so also the pressure of sin is necessary for human moral perfection.3 Others have argued that sin was necessary to God’s creation in order for man to exercise free will. A problem with these views is that sin is thus made normative to the human condition and may even be thought of as a kind of good. Such a view contrasts with the Bible’s insistence that sin is always “evil in the eyes of the Lord” (2Chron 29:6).
The Bible uniformly teaches God’s sovereignty over all things (Matt 10:9; Ps 33:11), which would include the origin of sin, yet Scripture explicitly denies that God is himself the source of evil. James 1:13 states that God is not the author of sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’” for “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” 1 John 1:5 insists, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,” so sin does not originate in God’s nature or being. Neither was anything made by God evil in any way, as Genesis 1:31 declares: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Job 34:10 states: “far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.” Moreover, the Bible explicitly states God’s hatred for sin (Ps 5:4; Luke 16:15).
Do these verses show that God merely permitted sin, without willing it? The answer must be “no,” if by permission we exclude God’s positive will. Fred G. Zaspel writes: “God’s relation to the sinful acts is not purely passive: his involvement is not that of mere allowance.”4 We may rightly say that God willed to permit sin, yet in so doing his providential government over sin is affirmed. Theologians approach this situation by asserting that God’s role in the origin of sin involves not primary but secondary causation. It was the will of Satan that sinned in leading the rebellion of angels, just as it was the will of Adam that sinned in taking the forbidden fruit. These were ultimately according to God’s decreed will, yet Satan and man remain responsible for their sin. Zaspel explains: “all that happens, good or evil, stems from God’s positive ordering of it; but the moral quality of the deed itself is rooted in the moral character of the person who does it.”5 At the same time, we must note a difference between God’s will of good and of evil, the former involving a positive enabling and the latter a positive permitting; Bavinck writes: “Light cannot of itself produce darkness; the darkness only arises when the light is withdrawn.”6
While we must deny any goodness in sin itself, it remains true that God has ordained sin—indeed, God sinlessly uses sin—for the praise of his glory. Since “from him and through him and to him are all things,” then God willed sin ultimately for the display of the perfection of his attributes, so that “to him [would] be glory forever” (Rom 11:36). We may therefore go so far as to say that although sin is evil, it is good that there was sin, or else God would not have willed it.
The clearest Scripture teaching affirming both God’s will for sin and man’s responsibility of sin formed a part of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. Convicting the people of Jerusalem for their sin against the Savior, Peter declared: “This Jesus . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). The sin was committed by the people who cried for Jesus’s crucifixion, by Pontius Pilate in his miscarriage of justice, by the Roman soldiers who nailed Christ to the cross, and by the priests and other religious leaders who mocked God’s Son in his torment. Yet, Peter also ascribes full sovereignty over all these wicked events to God. He inserts into that verse that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). God not only knew that his Son would be tortured, mocked, and slain, but it was according to his “definite” and eternal “plan” for history that these events took place.
The “Enigma” of Sin’s Origin
In answering questions as to the origin of sin, while we can affirm many important truths, we nonetheless stand before what Herman Bavinck called “the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear.”7 When considered as an explanation for the world as we know it, sin makes perfect sense: indeed, without a doctrine of the fall of mankind, the history of the world is incomprehensible. Yet, considering the biblical data about sin itself, when we ask how beings created as wholly good by God—such as the angel Satan and the man Adam—could will to sin, all answers escape us. Attempts to rationalize the origin of sin run aground against the essential irrationality of the creature rebelling against the Creator. This irrationality afflicts not merely the originating sins of ancient history but also every sin that we commit today. When the Christian bitterly asks, “Why did I sin?” there are descriptions—because of temptation, because of remaining indwelling sin, etc.—but there are no true explanations for the origin of any sin.
It is for this reason that Christians may be grateful that the question of “Why?” when it comes to sin, having no true answer on the human side of the equation, finds satisfaction in the grace of God’s sovereign will. Romans 11:32 states: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Only in the light of the glory of God’s grace does sin begin to make sense. God has chosen to save his people as sinners through the blood of his Son as a display of sovereign mercy. Christians thus realize that because we were converted from sin that was washed through atoning blood, God is glorified in his Son. Far from minimizing the significance of our ongoing sins, Christians also realize that God is glorified now in the power that his grace provides enabling us not to sin. The enigma of sin’s origin, then, enables believers in Christ to perceive in glorious clarity God’s amazing love and mercy in his Son, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:6).
- Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941. Berkhof provides brief and readable, yet thorough consideration of this topic.
- Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three: Sin and Salvation in Christ. John Vriend, trans. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006. This is the most comprehensive and mature treatment of the topic available. The relevant section is available on-line here.
- Bowers, Johnathan. “Seven Things the Bible Says about Evil,” Desiring God. October 18, 2011. This article is particularly useful in connecting answers to the question of evil to the cross of Christ.
- Piper, John. “God Planned Sin!” Video sermon excerpt arguing from Scripture that the greatest of all sins, the ridiculing murder of Jesus Christ, was God’s plan that revealed God’s will in saving sinners.
- Piper, John. “Is God Sovereign Over Sin?” Video sermon excerpt explaining God’s sovereign will and control over all sin.
- Warfield, B. B. Works. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003, 2:20–22.
- ———. Selected Shorter Works. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1970, 2:310–13. Warfield provides an insightful perspective on the orthodox view of the origin of sin, especially bringing forth the massive contributions of Augustine.
- “What Is the Origin of Sin?” God Questions? Brief and useful summary of the topic.
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