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Being somewhat on the pessimistic side of things, I find myself envying those who can be positive no matter what. I think that from day to day they have a real advantage in a lot of ways.
But then there are times when I think otherwise. When we turn to a topic like this morning’s, sin, here is where being positive can be a barrier to appreciation.
I’m going to lay out some of the scriptures on sin, along with some differing views on the doctrine of sin. And then we want to look at some applications of our view of sin.
Why do people have chronic problems?
But first, why is it that so many Christians will see only the most superficial change in their lives, and then that’s it? We’ll see some people come to Christ, and they may put away some of the excesses. They may start to give of their money, and some of these things. But as for the real dynamo and spiritual reality that we say should characterize the normal Christian, well it’s just not there.
I believe one reason for this is a failure to understand sin correctly. And I hope to show how that is.
But I think another thing we’ll see is people coming back to the same problems like habbits, again and again. It is frequent we’ll see a Christian with an immorality problem. And over the course of years, they just can’t really go very long without going back to that same old issue. “Well, I’ve really learned the lesson this time!” But they haven’t. And the go back.
I think, once again, we really are dealing here with a faulty understanding of sin. I don’t doubt that there may be other problems as well. But one problem there is a poor grasp on the matter of sin.
Well, I could go on with several symptoms of this problem. But we’ll get to some applications at the end. I just want you to know that this material has real, concrete application. In fact, application that is life and death, spiritually speaking.
I need to say this because we are getting into a theological study, and people always wonder about theological studies–whether they’re worth the effort.
Well, they are. And I think it wouldn’t hurt anyone to become steeped in what the Bible says about sin, any more than becoming steeped in what the Bible says about its cure.
The words for sin
First of all, the words for sin in the Bible are hat`ah in the OT and hamartia in the NT. They both mean, basically, “to miss the mark.” So they are metaphorial terms drawn from secular usage.
What you have to realize about these words, however, is that they came to mean, “sin” in a comprehensive sense. The term hamartia no longer refered exclusively to the act of sinning, but also to a fallen state, or a state of corruption.
Example: An example of this would be Rom. 5:12, where Paul talks about sin as something that spreads through man’s nature. In other words, the term has gone beyond signifying something someone does to denote a state of affairs. You can have this “thing” called “sin”.
However, the choice of the terms hat`ah and hamartia may indicate that sin can be measured by a standard.
Falling short of a standard
And so, the definition of sin can be seen as falling short of a standard. Or, to think scripturally, “disobedience to God’s commandments.”
Example: This is how it is defined in a passage like Jer. 16:10, 11 . . . One thing interesting about this passage is how it links unfaithfulness to God with disobeying his commandments.
So, both the terms for sin, and some passages we could look at seem to define sin in terms of violating a code.
On the other hand, there are those who have considered this definition entirely inadequate and would rather look at sin as “unbelief.”
Example: This was Jesus’ deal the the prideful Pharisees in Jhn. 9:41, “If you were blind you would have no sin . . .”
Another passage that is fairly stark on this is Rom. 14:23 . . .
We’ll discuss how these two views of sin can be harmonized and their implications in a bit.
But first, we need to look at where the Bible itself starts, original sin. This is the sin that Adam and Eve indulged in the Garden of Eden. If we can have some understanding here, then we would be in a better position to understand sin throughout man’s history.
The basics of the story are pretty amazing. God set up the first trial of mankind as a choice of different foods.
The choice for sin was described in Gen. 2:16ff. as the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” So it is a pretty long title. Let’s just look at the basic possibilities of what it could represent.
The tree was a test-case
The tree could be seen as a test-case of obedience. The name of the tree expresses what it was whether they ate of it or not. Before eating, it was the sole source of knowledge on this topic. The tree was the “test case” or one example of the difference between obedience and disobedience, good and evil.
This view of the tree would tend to emphasize the idea of obedience or disobediance. It would tend to stress the idea of sin as missing a standard.
However, this view would not explain God’s comment about the whole situation in Gen. 3:22, “Behold the man has become like us, knowing good and evil . . .” I take this comment to mean that something happened to Adam and Eve.
Somehow they changed. And the change is described by God as “knowing good and evil,” much like he did. Well, we know that God did not know good and evil experientially.
Perhaps the change is a new faculty for discerning evil, independent of God.
This is why some look at the tree as granting Adam and Eve a new ability. By chosing to eat the tree they were chosing to acquire a new knowledge about good and evil, independant of God. Adam and Eve could now make moral judgements on their own.
This is backed up by the fact that immediately they knew they were naked.
Guilt and Corruption
I think one implication of this second view is that it tends to promote the idea that Adam and Eve immediately received corruption of their very nature. This independant faculty to judge good and evil in itself was somehow undesireable. In itself it was not a good thing, and therefore it can be seen as corruption.
So, on the one hand, if Adam and Eve simply disobeyed, and as a result were judged, then the fruit they would inherit in their lives would be guilt. After the event they would be guilty, and therefore unworthy of fellowship with God.
The second view would say that they are both guilty, and corrupt. Something actually happened to their nature as a result of their action.
Mediation of Sin: Guilt and Corruption
Well, this idea is picked up by Paul and he describes how we recieved guilt and/or corruption in Rom. 5. Let’s turn there to understand this issue better.
Two historic views:
As we look at this passage, I want to understand it from two viewpoints, two traditions of interpretation. The first is a heresy, or at least it has been ruled that way by a couple church councils: Pelagianism. The second is called Augustinianism, and has been seen as more or less the orthodox view of sin in church history.
OK, the relevant passage is Rom. 5:12,
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned
Pelagius, a fourth century British monk, argued that we did not inherit actual corruption from Adam. For one, Adam himself was not actually corrupted. Neither have we inherited it. Instead, Adam set an example of what it is to disobey, and we likewise follow in that example as a human race.
In his view, you are born into the world more or less neutral. But then, through your own free choice you choose to sin. Then you are guilty, like Adam, and perhaps gradually corrupted also.
So, what Paul is talking about in this passage is not corruption which has spread to all, but guilt.
This is exactly what has happened according to Pelagius, because of the last phrase of v. 12, “because all sinned.” The point is that we are sinful like Adam because we chose to sin like Adam.
The implication of Pelagius’ view for human nature is that we have the ability to chose good. We have the ability to chose not to sin or to sin. Since we chose to sin, we are guilty and worthy of death.
I want to reiterate what Pelagius taught. What Rom. 5 is teaching is that we inherited Adam’s sin only by immitation. This is plain from his understanding. It is not that something came to you from Adam which made you gravitate toward sin. Adam’s role was only that of a bad example. Therefore, we are sinners in that we immitate this bad example.
On the other hand, Augustine came along and taught that our nature has been so corrupt, including our will, that we were incapable of chosing good. His favorite saying was, “God, ask what you will and then give what you ask.” The point is that if God is going to ask anything of us, then he will have to provide it himself because we are incapable.
How would Augustine read this same verse? He would say, this corruption called “sin” was introduced by Adam and passed down through the human race. And, he would say the phrase, “because all sinned” was not showing the cause of our corruption, but rather Paul was issuing proof of our corruption. In other words, “It’s obvious we all have sin and death because we all sin.”
The correlation with Christ
These two possible readings of the passage may be evaluated by looking at the larger context. Actually, Paul did not bring up the example of Adam just to talk about it. He brought up the example of Adam to illustrate something else, and that is the new life we now have in Christ.
So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:18, 19)
So, there is a correlation. Somehow the progression from Adam, to sin, to death, is similar to that from Christ . . .
(Put up chart showing progression from Adam>>death . . .)
The question is, how has Christ’s righteousness and resulting life come to us?
Was there an actualy change of nature accompanying it? And the answer is, yes. The work of Christ first removes our guilt, but he also inhabits us with his Spirit, and there is a renewal of some kind which the Bible refers to as a “new man” or “spirutal nature.” (Rom. 8:9; Eph. 4:24)
It may be nothing more than the fact that God’s Spirit is now living inside of us. But it is an actual change, and a change of judicial status before God.
So, we need to think about this correlation between Adam and Christ. If his effect on us was only that of bad example, then what Paul is teaching about Christ is that he has set a new example of obedience, which we can follow, and then we will be righteous like he and have life like he does. This is obviously ridiculous and heretical.
So, if there is any corralation between these two persons and their effect on the human race, then it is a matter of transmitting both guilt and corruption on the one hand. And on the other hand, transmitting both righteousness and new life.
The point here is that Adam and Eve were actually corrupted by the act of disobedience. Beyond that, they were judicially guilty. And then they transmitted this to all humans. Sin is transmitted by propagation, not imitation.
What kind of corruption?
So, we know there was corruption. But the question remains, what kind?
Original sin = independance
Well, if we go back to our original sin, then this gives us insight. Here we thought that either Adam and Eve were just disobeying, or they were picking up a new ability to act independantly of God in the area of good and evil. You’ll remember that the evidence in the story indicated that we inherited some kind of corruption. And this is confirmed by Paul’s correlation with Christ.
This, I believe, leads us to look at sin more as a problem of the heart than a problem of behavior. In other words, sin is a matter of not having the right dependance on God rather than not conforming to the correct standard. If you’ll recall our initial definitions of the term, “sin,” this was one of the possiblities–that it refers to a lack of faith.
Faith, if we defined it as dependance on God, would be just the opposite.
Why the standards?
Now, let’s think about this even further. Why all the standards in the Bible? Why is sin defined as violation of a standard if it is really a matter of the heart, a matter of attitude?
It’s because a standard can measure the heart negatively. A standard can tell you that something is missing.
Example: So, if someone was into beating his wife, you could imagine he is not depending on God and exercising faith at that moment.
But right here is where we need to be careful: If someone is not beating his wife, we know nothing of his heart attitude. Worse yet, if someone is “loving” his wife by all measures we can employ, we still don’t know his heart attitude. In fact, with the biblical understanding of sin, you could be doing something that is good, according to thoroughly biblical standards, and yet be in sin as far as God is concerned.
Example: Have you ever thought of Paul’s words about love in this light? He goes through this list of things you could do without having love, and it is pretty impressive (giving all your money to the poor, giving your body as a sacrifice!) But at the end of each of these things, he says, “if I don’t have love . . .”
What he is saying is that love is beyond any of those things. Love is a supernatural ability that comes only through real dependance on God.
Example: This is also why Paul says it is useless passing judgment on the moral quality of someone’s work in I Cor. 4:5. He says, “wait till the end, and then God will evaluate the motives of men’s hearts and they will receive their praise from him.”
Let me reiterate the point here. I could be doing something that, according to the standard, is morally correct. But I could still be in sin.
This understanding of sin has tremendous implications on the goal of the Christian life, how we should go about it, and so forth. Let’s get into some of those right now.
Let’s think first about the problem of both legalists and liscentious people. They both trivialize sin. By that I mean that they view it as light-heartedly as possible–something merely skin deep.
Legalist: searing the conscience
The legalist, on the one hand, will define sin and holiness in terms of an external code–which by the way, is usually somewhat keepable. Usually we select certain portions of God’s standards and hold them up as the goal of holiness. Because, truly, if we were open to the whole of God’s standards we would be exposed for what we are.
But the legalist looks at a standard, a biblical standard mind you, and says, “This is what it is to be in God’s will.” And that is why a legalist can be so hard on people. You see, his conscience is satisfied by the keeping of a standard. So he is able, then, to turn on others with a great deal of self-confidence back-patting. His conscience tells him nothing is wrong.
Example: How else can you explain something like Jimmy Swaggart calling Jim Bakker a slime on the face of the church? It’s because he had a standard, an external standard. And it said, “If I actually touch the flesh of another woman, who I am not married to, then I’m a fornicator. But if I have her talk dirty to me, and just watch, then that’s a greater degree of sanctification. I can still rail on that scum over there.”
This is also why Christians can go to church, maybe do some devotions on a regular basis, keep their life generally free of filthiness, and then live every other waking moment for themselves; stingy with money; never doing anything that would cost them too much personally; and they still feel like they are living for God.
What I’m saying is that people have a little mental check-list. And when the ask themselves, “Am I being holy?” they turn on the mental check-list and ask, “well, have I done this sin? Have I done this one? etc.”
Positive side: Desparately seeking God
But if you really understood, you would realize that you could check positive on the whole list, and still be entirely in sin.
I think that what the proper understanding of sin does is turn us into more desparate people. We realize that there needs to be something radical and thorough done to our character. And we begin to seek the Lord on that.
I think the right view of sin adds humility. We stop asking the question, “Have I done right?” and start coming to God and sayin, “I know I am wrong. My whole self is wrong and I need you.”
See, a person with this attitude is doing something that Paul calls, “walking in the Spirit.” And he says about a person like that, in Rom. 8, that God will eventually transform him even to the standards.
The second area I believe is really effected by our view of sin is our graciousness and positivism with others. It’s like this. If you believed that sin was merely a matter of conformity to a standard, then you would confront people and address why they don’t coform to the standard? “You need to stop doing this! Don’t you know it’s a sin!? Then why don’t you stop it!?
But if you understand sin as we have described it, you would realize that the external behavior is actually just a symptom. And you could deal with the symptom, only to have the problem pop up somewhere else.
Example: I could teach someone, “Never, under any circumstances must you snap at people. It is a sin.” And it is a sin. But if we focus on that external behavior alone, then the person may stop snapping at people, and instead take up the worse habbit of discarding friends when they get angry at them. It’s not as immediately noticeable. But it’s the same underlying sin.
So, I think the correct approach, both with other people and ourselves, is to realize that our behaviors are the result of deeper problems like refusing to believe the Lord in some area–unbelief. Or, put another way, they are symptoms of resisting God and being rebellious against God on some issue.
And you would realize something else, correcting these problems takes time. If it is true that sin is a corruption that touches every corner of our nature, then we had better learn to have some patience with each-other because it’s gonna be a while.
Example: I could see in my friend the sin of spiritual laziness. And I could start in on the behavior, insisting that he correct it now. And I might get some reaction as long as I keep the pressure up from the outside.
On the other hand, I could understand that this guy needs to come to some deep realizations about his own sinfulness. He needs to realize that spiritual laziness is a rejection of God and God’s will for his life. He needs to begin to see himself as one who resists God and even rebels against God. Then, as he comes to terms with that deeper issue, he will start to take that laziness seriously.
But in the meantime, I have to be patient. I have to accept that brother’s laziness and realize it will probably be there tomorrow too. There is a certain graciousness that results.
Another result of not understanding sin can be that we get into self-effort. And this kind of sums it all up. If you view sin according to a standard, then it is conceivable that a human could keep it. And you might even try.
And yet, from what we have said here this morning, that would be the very epitome of sin itself.
I want to conclude with several important qualifiers to what I have said here.
Standards are important
First of all, I want to make it clear that external standards are important. God has given them. So they must be important.
But what we have to understand is that the whole of God’s standards in every detail are important. Not just this one and that one. And there is no human being alive who can keep his mental list of standards that exhaustive.
Example: Someone could come to me and say, “Did you notice your inappropriate language in that situation?” And I could say, “Aahh, but did you notice that while you were noticing me, the person next to you was in great distress and needed someone to minister to him? You didn’t love your neighbor!”
The point is, no part of God’s standards can be elevated above the rest. This is why the word of God should serve as an instruction and conviction, but not as a check-list. In other words, I read God’s word and let it instruct me about love and how to conduct myself. But I don’t take the portion I just read, or my favorite portion, and turn it into a check-list that I’m trying to keep.
External behavior is important
Secondly, I want to point out that external, rote behavior is important. Often, and very often, I need to do what I know is right, and refrain from what I know is wrong, even though my heart attitude is far from God.
This is for the simple reason that sin is costly. The big reason that God doesn’t want us to get into it is because it hurts. So, you realize, “Even if my heart attitude in this area hasn’t been dealt with, I still need to do what is right because it would cost too much.”
Example: A great example here is that even though I am lusting in my heart, I will not go ahead and fornicate because the Proverbs say I will be reduced to a loaf of bread.
Example: Likewise, on the positive side, I will still continue to do God’s work, and speak to people about him even though I suspect my heart is not right with God.
Why? Here is the principle that is important: The cost of not doing so would be too great. I’m introducing the idea that some standards are more important because of their effect than others. And that could be a teaching in itself. But sufice it to say as a qualifier that there is a time for sheer obediance, even though my heart is not right.
But here is the key: Don’t then assume that you don’t have a problem. Don’t assume that you are righteous at that point. Just thank God that you didn’t screw up. But don’t assume that you are in God’s will.