Doctrine of Man (Part 13)

December 08, 2013     Time: 00:38:19

We are thinking about man insofar as he is a sinner and fallen before God. Last time we looked at the doctrine of the Fall, and attempts to systematize the biblical data about the Fall of man, and to answer the challenge to the historical Adam that is posed by contemporary population genetics. Today we want to turn to a new subsection on the nature of sin – what is sin? How should we understand sin?

Nature of Sin

Biblical Data

So let’s take a look first at some of the biblical data concerning the nature of sin. To do this, I am going to need my Bible as you will need yours. I would like to look at four biblical passages with you on the nature of sin.

First, from Genesis 2:15-17. This is the story of the Fall, or leading up to it.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 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 die.”

Here God is giving to man a command to keep and it will be through the transgression of this command that man falls into sin.

Let’s look at Romans 5:18-19 in the New Testament. Paul, reflecting upon Adam’s sin, says,

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness [that is, Jesus Christ] leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

Here Paul speaks of Adam’s sin in terms of trespass and in terms of disobedience to God.

Turn over to Romans 7, just two chapters later. Romans 7:7-12 where Paul describes some of the effects of sin in the natural man. He says,

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.

Finally, the fourth passage is from John’s first epistle, 1 John 3:4. Here John gives a very pithy definition of sin: “Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” So here is John’s concept of sin. Sin is lawlessness.

Attempts to Systematize Data

Let’s look at attempts to systematize this biblical data.[1]


First, let’s talk about the traditional view of the nature of sin. Traditionally, sin has been understood to be a transgression of God’s moral law. We saw that the Scripture speaks of sin as lawlessness and that Paul speaks of a trespass on the part of Adam. So sin is a transgression of God’s moral law.

There are three characteristics of sin that have been traditionally identified by Christian theologians. The first would be pride. For example, Genesis 3:5 speaks of this. This is the serpent’s temptation of Eve and he says to her, “For God knows that when you eat of it [that is, of the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Here you see the pride of man appealed to; that he wants to arrogate to himself the place of God. He wants to be like God. So one of the characteristics of sin is this pride – arrogating to one’s self a status that one ought not to have.

The second one is concupiscence. Not a word that we often use today, but concupiscence basically means a grasping, a coveting, a kind of craving that sin produces in one. Paul speaks of this as we saw in Romans 7:7. Let’s look at that verse again. “. . . if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” But sin produces in us this sort of selfish grasping and desire for self gratification. The desires of one’s own self as opposed to seeking what God wants. So concupiscence, lust if you will – not just sexual lust, but this sort of craving or coveting –, is a traditional characteristic of sin.

Finally, the third traditional characteristic of sin identified by theologians is unbelief. Sin is unbelief. Romans 14:23, Paul says in the last part of that verse, “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” So, one of the characteristics of sin is unbelief. Indeed, for Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, this is the chief characteristic of sin – unbelief – because it is out of unbelief that all of the other aspects of sin flow. It is fundamentally unbelief in God that is the root of all the other evils that are produced. So unbelief, far from being trivial, is really the chief principal sin that we commit.

Luther also characterized sin, interestingly enough, as a kind of curvature of the soul in upon one’s self. One is no longer oriented toward God as a supreme good but there is a kind of bentness, a kind of self-curvature, where we are curved in upon our selves seeking our own gratification and desires.

Those would be some of the traditional ways in which sin is characterized.


Now, in contrast to that, modern theologians have tried to, shall we say, domesticate or reinterpret sin. For example, the father of modern theology was the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, an early 19th century theologian.[2] For Schleiermacher, sin is a weakness of our God consciousness. He thought that the essence of religion was having a consciousness of God and one’s dependence of God moment by moment through life, a sort of absolute dependence upon God. Sin is weakness in this God consciousness. It is being oblivious to God – not being aware of one’s dependence on God, a sort of forgetfulness of God. So man is not really fatally flawed. He is not morally guilty and condemned before God. Rather, he is just inhibited. He needs to come to a kind of full realization of his dependence upon God to expand his consciousness as it were and to experience his absolute dependence upon God moment by moment. I think you can see that for Schleiermacher, although there are things there of value in terms of being dependent upon God and the importance of being conscious of God moment by moment, he really robs the traditional doctrine of sin of any of its moral quality.

Similarly in the 20th century, a very prominent 20th century theologian was Paul Tillich. Tillich really could not even be called a theist, I don’t think. He didn’t really believe there is a personal mind or being distinct from the world who has created the world. Tillich referred to God as “the ground of being.” He is the sort of ultimate reality that is the foundation or the ground of everything else, and everything else is simply a manifestation of this fundamental reality which is difficult to characterize called “the ground of all being.” So for Tillich sin is alienation from the ground of being. Rather than recognizing your unity with the world and with the ground of being you are estranged from it. You don’t recognize that and so you are alienated from the ground of being. So Tillich reinterpreted the traditional characteristics of sin in line with this philosophy. For example, what was unbelief for Tillich? Unbelief is the failure to recognize your unity with God. You really are one with God. God is the ground of your being and you are one with God but unbelief is a failure to recognize that oneness with God. So you need to get rid of that alienation and estrangement by recognizing your fundamental unity with God. What is pride? Pride is self-exaltation. Rather than being oriented toward God, you are oriented toward yourself and exalt yourself. It is a refusal to recognize yourself as finite. You are just a finite creature that is ultimately doomed to perish and pass away and pride is thinking of yourself as somehow more significant than you really are; failing to recognize your finitude in face of the ground of being. Concupiscence he interprets to be, again, just self-seeking – seeking your own goods and interests. Again, for Tillich I think you can see, as with Schleiermacher, you have this same tendency to obscure the moral aspects of sin. We don’t hear anything here about guilt or punishment or the need for redemption. It is just a sort of failure of human consciousness to realize its oneness with God or dependency upon God.

I don’t mean to imply by any means that all modern theologians hold to views like this, but I think this is illustrative of the movement away from the traditional concept of sin that has characterized some modernist thinkers.[3]


Question: It seems as though the modern position here is nothing more than a repackaged form of Pelagianism. Is that correct?

Answer: I think it is worse than that because – we’ll talk about Pelagianism when we get to original sin – but Pelagius did think that we need redemption, we need forgiveness, even if he thought that we have the ability to come to God and the ability to live a sinless life on our own in virtue of God’s gifts that he has given us. But it still is a moral failing on Pelagius’ view. So I think this is much worse than that. To me this is more like pantheism really. It is more like Buddhism, I think, in a sense. If you think of the ground of being as just being Brahman or The All or The Absolute, it seems to me that this is very alien to a monotheistic conception of God and sin.

Question: I think this way of expressing the prerequisite of our moral or standard of good and evil since God defines good and only by this relationship with him we understand what his standard is and when we fall short and then we need to repent and get redeemed so the way that they explain that can be a prerequisite of the moral standard?

Answer: I think you are absolutely right when you draw attention to the fact that your doctrine of sin is going to depend upon your doctrine of God, isn’t it? If God is a personal being who is, as you say, the standard of goodness – he is what Plato called The Good – and it is through his commandments that we have moral duties, obligations, and prohibitions, then your doctrine of sin is going to flow out of that. But if you think of God as an impersonal absolute then it is difficult to see how you can have a robust doctrine of sin and guilt before God. So I do think you are quite right in reminding us that the traditional doctrine of sin presupposes the classical doctrine of God that we’ve talked about these many months ago.

Question: Most of the time I think of sin as some sort of willful disobedience to God but it sounds like you are saying there can be sort of a passive nature to sin where we just don’t recognize it – like unfaithfulness. Or we don’t recognize our own bent or something like that. Can you speak to that passive versus active nature, if that is what you call it?

Answer: I will say something more about what I think sin is when we get to the evaluation, but I do think you are drawing our attention to something that is important. There can be sins of omission as well as sins of commission; not just active rebellion against God but a passive indifference to God. In that sense, maybe Tillich and Schleiermacher do have something to remind us about in that when we fail to be conscious of our obligations to God, to live for him everyday, and we are just indifferent to him, we are failing to fulfill our moral duties before God and therefore are sinning even though it may be very passive. So we shouldn’t just think of sin as willful rebellion. I think you are absolutely right that it can involve a passive indifference to God as well.

Question: Could you think of sin as having your will different from God’s and that would be kind of a basis for where pride and stuff comes from?

Answer: Yes.

Followup: The modern theologians, I don’t know anything about them, but it seems to me that if they were insightful they would know that if you had a different will and came into touch with God you would have self-condemnation. Do they approach that you need a covering?

Answer: Again, if you don’t have a concept of God as a person, then he doesn’t have a will. So these thinkers, I think, lack this robust concept of God as a person to whom we relate. But I like what you are saying. When our will is oriented contrary to God’s will then we are in effect sinning.[4] Sin doesn’t need to be the choice of something that is, in itself, positively evil. It can be just something different than what God wills. If he wills for you to do something and you choose to do something else, that other thing might be good in itself – maybe it would be what God wills someone else to do in fact – so that that needn’t be an evil act, but for you it is evil because it involves disobedience to God. You have opposed your will to his will. So I do think that that is an important insight.

Followup: And that would be with a context of anything done without faith. That is only in the concept of you know that there is a God. So anything, once you know there is God, done without faith is going to be sin so you must be in accordance; that is Lordship.

Answer: Yes. That is what Paul does say – that anything that doesn’t proceed from faith is sin.

Followup: It seems like the natural theologians, if they had the concept that, OK we are cut off, we are in a finite perspective, that there would be conflict when they enter into an all-knowing . . . unless you change it from being all-knowing to being a numbness like the Hindu.

Answer: It does seem to be more akin to Eastern religions, I think, which also think of the finite self as somehow estranged from The Absolute and you need to deny yourself and realize your unity with The Whole or The All and ultimately the goal is reabsorption into The All. I think this sounds very Eastern in its tone.

Question: How would the modern view look at the Fall in itself. Would they try to say that Eve prior to taking a bite from the apple just lost her ability to understand her connection to God rather than choosing consciously to transgress the law?

Answer: I am not sure if you were here when we talked about the Fall, the traditional view of the Fall versus modern views of the Fall. On these modern views of the Fall, the Fall is just a mythological event; it is not something that really happened. It simply is a symbol of all of our falleness and estrangement from God. It is not something that actually happened historically. So the sort of question that you are asking wouldn’t even be posed by someone like a Tillich. He would simply think of this as a myth that does express a deep truth, namely our alienation from the ground of being, but he would see this as something that is in every man and not something that happened to the ancestors of the human race.


Let’s say something by way of evaluation about the nature of sin. I think already you’ve seen that I think that sin is primarily a transgression of God’s moral law. Because God is The Good and has constituted certain moral duties for us by issuing commandments to us, disobedience to those commandments or the breaking or transgression of his moral law is sin.

But sin is much more than just law-breaking, it seems to me. For sin involves a personal dimension that we mustn’t miss or overlook. Sin is a personal affront to God. It is not simply transgression of some natural moral law, it is disobedience. It is like the child flinging epithets in the face of his parents and choosing to do what he wants to do rather than what his parents have told him to do. It is a rebellion and disobedience against God himself. Therefore, there is much more of a personal dimension to sin than simply breaking the law. It is an affront to God. It is in a sense an assault upon God’s person and authority which creatures commit.

So we shouldn’t think of sin as just a weakness in man, as these modern theologians do. Rather, I think we need to affirm that man is objectively morally guilty before God and therefore finds himself in a state of condemnation. It is not just guilt feelings which are our problem. Rather, we are objectively morally guilty before God and therefore under his just condemnation deserving his punishment and wrath.[5]

It is because of that objective moral guilt that we bear that we find ourselves in a state of condemnation before God. I think that this understanding is so important because it helps to answer non-believers who characterize God as saying, “What kind of God is this? Believe in me or be damned!” Is that an all-loving God? A God who would say believe or be damned? Is that the kind of God that we worship? No, not at all. It is not that God says, “Believe or be damned.” Rather, we are already condemned before God. We have already raised our fist against him and find ourselves in a state of condemnation and guilt before him. So God says to us, “Believe and be saved.” That is his offer to us. Believe and be saved. So when we understand the nature of sin and our condemnation before God I think we have a clearer understanding of the predicament in which we find ourselves and why God’s offer of salvation in Christ is truly a rescue operation. It is an offer of salvation to save us from this state of condemnation in which we already exist. Failing to understand that, as many non-believers do, will make God appear to be this arbitrary and tyrannical person who says, “Believe in me or else I will damn you.” That is not the proper concept of God.

This also underscores why unbelief is, as Luther says, the most fundamental sin. Because it is unbelief that truly separates us from God’s saving grace. We are already condemned before God in virtue of our disobedience and our transgression, but if we refuse to believe in God’s provision, if God says to us “Believe and be saved” and we say, “I will not believe” then we are self-condemned. We are literally self-condemned. We thrust God and his salvation from us and hold him at arm’s length.

So I think that this understanding of sin is really critical if we are to understand the offer of salvation and God’s grace extended to us in Christ and made available to us.


Question: How do you address a person who believes that they have no sin and therefore need no God?

Answer: In one sense, that person is right that if that person has no sin then they are not going to need God to forgive and save them. But I suppose what one would need to explain is what we talked about a moment ago is that sin isn’t just active rebellion against God. It is also this passive indifference to God; not having your will oriented toward him as the supreme good but toward these other lesser goods. So a person like that is, in fact, guilty of sin even if that person doesn’t realize it.

Followup: But it is hard to convince them of that.

Answer: I know, I know. You are right. I think sometimes people will put up a smokescreen where they claim that they haven’t done anything wrong but deep in their heart they must surely know that they have sometimes acted selfishly or cruelly or in other ways that would be wrong. If that person is married, you might say, “If I asked your spouse if you are sinless, would he agree with you?” I kind of think that that other person would have a more objective opinion. [laughter]

Question: It just seems difficult to see how one could come up with a coherent definition of sin on pantheism. We normally think of God as some sort of perfect being or some sort of standard by which people judge “oughts” – morality and the like. So if God is everything, how do you create some sort of division between “the ought” that is in the perfect being and “what is” which is exactly the same thing?

Answer: I couldn’t agree more. I remember when I started my doctoral studies under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, there was a young faculty member in the department and I asked him what his area of specialization was and he said it was Buddhist ethics. And I said, “Buddhist ethics? I can’t understand how you can have any sort of objective ethics on Buddhism.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s a real problem.” [laughter] I mean, the whole discipline seems incoherent.[6] And, in fact, when you look at some of these pantheistic religions, like Hinduism, the distinction between good and evil is part of the realm of illusion. Maya, it’s not real. In The Absolute this dichotomy between good and evil is dissolved so that the difference between good and evil is really just illusory on Hinduism. So I quite agree with you. I think that one of the great strengths of monotheism is its foundation for the ethical life.

Question: Unless it jumps too far ahead, could you give a comment on how one’s view of sin dictates one’s view of the atonement – the atonement being God’s provision for correcting or fixing man’s sin or problem? For example, Schleiermacher I think said that what happens in the atonement is not that objective guilt is being resolved but instead God is correcting our misunderstanding. In other words, he is not really mad with us; he is showing us he’s not mad.

Answer: Very nice, that is correct. You will find among some of these more post-Enlightenment theologians a view of the atonement which is a moral influence view where we see Christ’s self-giving love on the cross and this moves us then to depend upon and follow God and live good, ethical lives. His death doesn’t really do anything at that moment but it exerts a kind of moral influence by example upon us. Also, you will remember when we did the work of Christ (in that section of this class) we talked about Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement. On that theory of the atonement, again you have this idea of the personal affront to God very front and center. We have maligned God’s dignity and honor by our disobedience. I think that is a strength of the satisfaction view in that it incorporates this notion of a personal affront that we’ve committed to God. But it tends to minimize the moral aspects. And for that you seem to need something more like a penal theory of the atonement – that Christ has actually borne the penalty for our sins. So in Augustine you get a strong emphasis on the moral aspects of sin – how we have transgressed God’s moral law. And that leads Augustine away from the ransom theory of the atonement where Christ is simply rescuing these hostages by a sort of power grab away from Satan to emphasizing the more moral aspects of the atonement – payment for sin by Christ’s death, making God’s grace and forgiveness available to us. So you are right, one of the wonderful things about Christian theology that I hope will emerge in your thinking as we go through this class is the way it all hangs together so beautifully to make a worldview that makes sense. So your doctrine of sin, as someone said earlier, is going to depend upon your doctrine of God; but in turn as you point out it is going to impact then your theory of atonement as well. So you are seeing very nicely here the interconnections among these Christian doctrines that I think is part of the beauty of the Christian worldview.

Question: Are there levels of sin?

Answer: Well, I am inclined to think that there are, yes. It seems to me that there are sins which are more serious than others. I think it would be bizarre to say that torturing and murdering another person for fun is just as bad as, say, stealing a hymn book from the church and using it at home. I do think that there are different degrees of sin.

Followup: So for the non-believer, if they go, “Well, wait a minute. I’ve never murdered anybody and, yes, I go faster than the speed limit but that doesn’t mean I’m a criminal.”

Answer: I would agree that it means he is not as bad as someone who does those things but that isn’t to say that therefore he doesn’t need forgiveness and a savior. He still needs forgiveness and a savior; he still finds himself in this state of condemnation.[7] Remember, if Luther is right – and I think he is – unbelief is the most serious sin. Unbelief is more serious than murder because it is unbelief that repudiates God and is the principal sin that we commit. So to say there are degrees of sin isn’t to say that sin isn’t serious. In support of the view that there are degrees of sin, think of the parable of Jesus where he describes how some of the servants receive a light beating but others receive a heavy beating from the master for the various things that they’ve done. It does seem that there are degrees of sin but that isn’t to say that sin isn’t therefore serious. Unbelief is the principal sin that we need to deal with.

Question: I think sin involves conscience – when Adam and Eve ate that fruit, their conscience is distorted. The conscience of accepting the standard from God changed to they accept the standard from Satan in a deceptive way that I can tell what is good and evil but actually Satan is the authority behind it. So redemption is our redeemed conscience going back to being realigned to God’s standard.

Answer: Yes, think of what we talked about on the traditional view of the Fall. The perfections that man enjoyed in the state of innocence that were lost in the Fall, and that would include having a conscience that was right before God and now is corrupted and fallen. When we get to the doctrine of original sin, which we will start next time, we will look at this in more detail to see the sort of corruption that man bears as a result of our falleness, and this will be a jaded conscience that sometimes we may be objectively guilty before God and our conscience is so dull that we don’t even realize it. As I said, our problem isn’t guilt feelings, it is objective guilt. Even the person who doesn’t have guilt feelings still is guilty before God and may in fact have a sort of jaded conscience as a result of the dulling effects of sin on his life.

That completes what I wanted to say about the nature of sin. Next time we will take up the question of original sin – whether or not we are somehow included in Adam’s sin and culpable for the sin that he committed.[8]


[1] 5:02

[2] 10:05

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:14

[6] 30:13

[7] 35:06

[8] Total Running Time: 38:19 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)