The UCCF Doctrinal Basis says with regard to sin:
'Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God's wrath and condemnation.'
The doctrine of sin is both pivotal and personal. It is pivotal in our understanding of the Christian gospel because it is the doctrine that directly links our understanding of God and creation with that of Jesus and salvation. Sin is what has changed the world from God's original design - sin and its consequences are the problem of our world. And then sin and its consequences are what salvation in Jesus overcomes; salvation is God's answer to the problem of sin.
As a result without a clear doctrine of sin we will simply not understand the story line of the Bible because it is the story of how God works to overcome and rescue us from sin. This pivotal nature of the doctrine of sin means that different positions taken on the nature and effects of sin correspond to different positions taken on the nature of God/creation, and Jesus/salvation.
The doctrine of sin is also personal. It is in fact one of the most personal elements in a systematic theology because it is describing us - and it is describing what is wrong with us. There is as a result a perpetual tendency to play down or minimise the nature and effects of sin.
Putting this personal and pivotal nature together means there is often a downplaying of sin with the inevitable knock-on effects on the doctrines of God/creation and Jesus/salvation. It is because of this that it has been commented that most or even all heretical teaching that has troubled the church has had at its heart a deficient doctrine of sin.
The Nature of Sin
The nature of sin can be seen most clearly in the actions of the fall in Genesis 3 which functions as the archetypal sin. While the fall of Adam and Eve is unique in being the first sin it sets the pattern for the sin of the rest of humanity.
The essential nature of sin is that of not living with God as God, expressed by an act of disobedience against God's rule as expressed in his word. This is instead of the created pattern of living with God as our God whose word is trusted and obeyed. In the Bible sin is then described in a variety of ways:
- rebellion against God's lawful authority (Genesis 2:16-17);
- a lack of trust in God's word of command and word of promise (Genesis 3:4);
- taking the privilege of deciding the rights and wrongs of creation in place of God whose creation it is (Genesis 3:5);
- a lack of thankfulness to God for his good and gracious provision, and instead a desire for more than he has given (Genesis 3:6; Romans 1:21);
- a choice to worship and follow part of the creation rather than the creator with the related imagery of "idolatry" (Romans 1:23);
- an elevation of self with a desire "to be like God" (Genesis 3:5);
- a failure to glorify God as the one and only God (Romans 1:21);
- hostility to God expressed in defiance of his rule and commands (Romans 8:7; Colossians 1:21).
The devil of course tempts us to sin and we can see a parallel between his nature and the nature of sin. Sin is self-exalting pride and independence from God, and that was the devil's downfall before it was ours (1 Tim 3:6).
Hence sin is seen as a culpable and wicked action of humanity against God. This is very different from speaking of sin as "mistakes we make" or "human weakness". Such terms play down the seriousness of sin. At their worst they tend to place people in the role of "victims" rather than "perpetrators" of a crime. This has the effect of watering down God's rightful rule of creation where he is the creator who is to be obeyed; and undercutting the consequences of sin such that punishment is seen as too harsh.
The Effect of the Fall on Humanity
The fall has devastating effects not only on Adam and Eve but also on all humanity to follow. The effects can be thought of in a number of directions. First in relationship to God: Adam and Eve are put out of the Garden of Eden which pictures their exclusion from God and hence relationship with him. More than that, the warning of Genesis 2:17 was that disobedience would result in "death". This means that human life now ends in physical death (Genesis 3:19); and beyond that is the prospect of eternal death in terms of punishment by God (Romans 2:5; Rev 21:8).
So sin results in our living under condemnation. This is both the greatest effect of sin but also the one most hidden from us. While God's wrath against us is revealed now (Romans 1:18ff), the full expression of that wrath and condemnation is reserved until the day of judgement (Romans 2:5-6).
Second there is the effect on the relationship between human beings. Rather than being characterised by loving community our relationships now involve discord, hatred, lies, jealousy and so on. It is salient to note that in the first chapter after the fall comes the first murder. In addition descriptions of sin are commonly characterised by ways in which our horizontal relationships have become disordered as well as how the vertical relationship with God has been shattered (e.g. Mark 7:21-22; Galatians 5:19-21).
Third there is the effect on the creation itself which no longer cooperates with human endeavour to rule and subdue it. The harmonious picture of Genesis 1:28 (reflected in Psalm 8) is not seen, but rather the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3:18 and the groaning of creation of Romans 8:22.
Lastly there is the effect of sin on us as individuals. Jesus can describe us as "evil" (Matthew 7:11). He can say that our hearts now produce such things as evil thoughts, sexual immorality, murder, theft, adultery, greed, malice, arrogance, etc (Mark 7:21-23). We think we are free but actually we are only free to sin - we are slaves to sin (John 8:34) and are unable to obey God (Romans 8:7-8).
Hence within the flow of Biblical history the storyline is that of God graciously overcoming the results of our sin. This sees us as utterly reliant on God's intervention; against the power of sin we are helpless by ourselves. And so views of sin which minimise its nature and effects then reshape biblical history such that people are seen to take the initiative with God or are able to overcome some of the effects of sin on their own terms.
The Universal Nature and Communication of Sin
The universal nature of sin is well attested in Scripture:
- "there is no one who does not sin" (1 Kings 8:46);
- "all have turned away, all have become corrupt" (Ps 14:3);
- "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23);
- "if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
As a result the universal condemnation of humanity in deserving God's wrath and condemnation follows. The doctrine of sin means God would be entirely justified in sending everyone to hell.
However what is more debated is the relationship between the fall and this universal nature of sin. This raises the question of what is commonly called "original sin". That term is sometimes used to refer to the original sin committed by Adam and Eve i.e. the first ever sin. However here we are thinking of it in term of the cause of the sinful nature and guilt of the rest of humanity. These are sometimes referred to as "inherited sinfulness" (our own propensity to sin), and "inherited guilt" (our standing of condemnation before God), that is inherited in some way from Adam and Eve.
The connection between our sinfulness and that of Adam has been thought about in the following ways.
This sees all of humanity as present in Adam when he sinned. Adam is seen as possessing the entire human race within himself on the basis of his being the "father" of humanity. Not surprisingly this has been criticised for seeing people held accountable of the action of their fore-father (something that God says he will not do, e.g. Ezekiel 18:19-20).
This sees the contamination and guilt of sin being passed down in a "genetic" type way. Hence is has been criticised on the basis that we are no more responsible for our sinfulness than for the colour of our eyes.
This sees Adam as a symbolical picture of what each person decides to do for themselves - hence we repeat Adam's fall. However this has been criticised for obliterating any real connection between Adam and the rest of humanity contrary to Romans 5:12ff; and also ignoring the Biblical data on our being "by nature objects of wrath" (Eph 2:1-3).
This sees Adam as the representative head of humanity and so sees him acting on behalf of humanity. This has also been criticised for being unfair but it accords well with Paul's argument in Romans 5:12ff and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. This view sees Adam as representing all of us and so we sin "in him". A helpful way of thinking about this might be to say that if any one of us were placed in Adam's position we would have done exactly the same as he did.
The Implications for Salvation
The results of sin as outlined above are that we have a sinful nature - a propensity to evil within us - and we are guilty before God - we deserve rightful condemnation. This means that salvation requires two elements if sin and its effects are to be overcome.
First we need to be rescued from the penalty of sin - the condemnation we deserve because of our guilt. This is achieved through Jesus' death and resurrection on our behalf. He dies the death we deserved and suffers the wrath of God that is due to us. Hence if anyone is in Christ there is no condemnation for them (Romans 8:1).
Second we need to be rescued from the power of sin within us. We are taught that left to ourselves our hearts produce evil (Mark 7:20-23) and we need God to recreate us such that we can produce what is good. This recreation also happens through Jesus' death and resurrection - specifically our dying and rising in union with him such that we are recreated by the Spirit (Romans 6:5-7; 8:9- 11; Titus 3:5-6). This work of recreation from the power of sin is ongoing in our lives as Christians and will not be completed until Jesus' return when he brings final salvation and transformation of us (Hebrews 9:28; 1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:21).
Lastly we should note that if the nature of sin is that of throwing off God's rightful rule shown by disobedience to his word then the terms of salvation revolve around the reassertion of that rule and obedience to that word. Hence the key descriptions of the terms of salvation are "repentance and faith". We must come back under the rule of God (as now expressed through the lordship of Jesus) and believe his word of promise and command to us.
Challenges to the Doctrine of Sin
The doctrine of sin is challenged in a variety of ways today - usually this involves minimising the nature or the effects of sin. The most common challenges include:
Seeing People as Victims
This position thinks that what we do wrong is a product of our environment and/or our upbringing and/or our genes. In other words our bad behaviour is because of something external to us rather than within us. We are victims of other people or circumstances.
We should of course see that within God's created order all these factors have a definite effect on us, and hence we are victims in many ways. However that is different to saying that these things are the cause of our sinfulness. Rather we should see that they produce the circumstances for our sin and shape its nature, but we remain responsible for it. So we should say that in many cases people are victims, but essentially they remain guilty.
Seeing People as Still Essentially Good
This view thinks that the traditional position on sin has been too "down on ourselves". Instead of speaking of original sin we are told, we should remind ourselves that God created us with original goodness and that goodness has not been lost.
It is possible to so emphasise the depravity of sin that we think no one could do anything objectively good, or that God could not possibly love such people. However the Biblical position is that although we can still do good things that is despite the fact that we are evil (e.g. Matthew 7:12); and the biblical position is that it is incredible that God still loves us precisely because we are so sinful (in John 3:16 the amazing thing is that God loved the world not because it is so big but because it is so bad).
Focus on Particular Types or Patterns of Sin
This position can take many forms. Some can focus on what they regard as particularly "bad" sins, for example sexual sin. This focus means playing down other more "respectable" sins such as pride or bitterness. This position can often go hand in hand with a legalistic mindset and a self-righteous attitude that doesn't regard oneself as sinful as everyone else.
A different version of this can focus on institutionalised expressions of sin (e.g. injustice) and play down issues of personal morality. As a result sin can become something removed from individuals and become an issue of systems and institutions. We should not deny such institutionalised expressions of sin but must speak of people as being behind them, and speak of personal sin at the same time.
Over Emphasis on Freedom from Sin
This position says that once in Christ we are freed from the power of sin. As we saw above this is indeed a component of our salvation. However the work of the Spirit in us now is partial and progressive, whereas this position views it as being complete and instant. This is most commonly seen in doctrines that mean being "open" to a particular work of the Spirit, or in programs that promise freedom from sin. While we must emphasise both the possibility and necessity of progressive sanctification this view underplays the ongoing presence of the sinful nature in the Christians life.
The pastoral implications of a biblical doctrine of sin are many and various. It should result in at least the following:
We should not be surprised at our own or other people's moral failures. In the church we above all people should know that the heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9).
We should be humble because we know that we have committed the great crime of history in trying to dethrone God. In addition we are as sinful as anyone else despite different manifestations of that sinfulness. Sin (like the cross) is a great "leveller" between people.
We should be thankful and amazed that God continues to love the people who reject him and does so the extent of sending his Son to die. The awfulness of the cross shows us both how sinful we are and how loved we are and the result should be great gratitude.
We should long for God's work of undoing the presence and damage of sin to be complete. We should look forward to the new creation where we will love God with all our heart and love others as ourselves and creation itself will be liberated. On that day there will be no more sin and there will be and end to the curse that was a result of sin.