What Exactly Is Sin?
Radical Disclosure at the Cross
In the previous chapters some polls were conducted and different positions identified. We will now attempt to come to an explanation of a doctrine of sin from a classical Reformed perspective.
When studying the doctrine of sin, it is customary to start with the question about the origin of sin, or more broadly, the “unde malum?” question (where did evil come from?). However, it will be more advantageous to take our starting point with sin as it actually manifests itself in our reality: the sin we encounter and the sin we commit. The Bible does not present us with any theoretical considerations about sin. Instead, it is brought live into the limelight. Sin is revealed as it appears in real life. The most profound word about sin is spoken with a view to the cross of Christ. Sin is only taken fully serious when the cross of Golgotha stands central in the doctrine of sin. At Golgotha we see against the dark wood of the cross the bright spot of the light of God’s love. There, where God’s Son is nailed to the accursed wood, is the most exalted, the most moving and convincing revelation of God’s love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
But at the same time sin’s essence is here fully revealed in a complete unmasking and a radical disclosure. Sin is pre-meditated murder of the Son of God. Sin is the ultimate attempt to deny God, to rid him from our existence, to conquer his love through our hate and rebellion.
It is from this central place in Scripture, this absolute zenith of the revelation of God’s love, and this equally absolute nadir of sin that we want to read backward through the entire Old Testament, back to Genesis 3.
No Excuse Whatsoever
Not only among the Gentiles, but also in Israel, that is, among God’s chosen people, time and again we are confronted with the puzzling reality of opposition against God. In view of God’s acts of salvation and of his covenant faithfulness, sin is so absurd that prophets sent in the name of their Sender repeatedly put the question to the people: what did God really do to you? Can you accuse him of anything? What did He do to deserve such abuse and improper treatment? (see Micah 6:3; Isa. 5:4). The respondents are unable to answer such questions. From the perspective of God’s actions there is no rhyme or reason, no excuse for this brutish human reaction. The history of paradise makes this obvious as well. Man had received a splendid position in the midst of creation, he had been surrounded with all possible tokens of God’s favour, and yet he rebelled against his Creator, Lawgiver, and King. Sin is aimed at a good God. At its core, sin is hurting and offending God’s love. Essentially, sin is breaking the covenant, breaking the bond of faithfulness. That does not contradict that sin provokes God’s holiness, and that transgression of God’s law exists. The fulfillment of the law is found in love (Rom. 13:10), the reciprocal love as an answer of the creature and the covenantal child on the pre-emptive love of the Lord. Besides, even the law is an expression of God’s love, somewhat similar to how parents out of love for their child make sure their yard has a protective fence, and so they provide opportunities for the child to show its reciprocal love: “let’s see how much you love mommy and daddy!”
A Further Focus on Sin
When we now move from the cross of Christ as the centre and go in the opposite direction, not backward to creation but forward to the fulfillment, the eschaton, then we see the following points. Because the Spirit of Pentecost focuses on the proclamation of the only Name unto salvation (Acts 4:12), sin concentrates itself in the unbelieving and unrepentant rejection of the crucified and resurrected Christ. In the book of Revelation it is emphasized that the eschatological wrath belongs to the Lamb. The Lamb was slaughtered to atone for sin, and is presented in the proclamation as the salvation for everyone who believes, but which now has turned to wrath on account of the depreciation of his sacrifice (Rev. 6:16). The core of sin is this: refusing to believe in his name (John 16:9), ignoring such a great salvation (Heb. 2:3), and regarding the blood of the New Testament as unclean.
When in this way we approach very concretely (not abstractly) the essence of sin in confrontation with the cross, then it becomes clear also that our speaking about sin is not to be associated conveniently with a general sense of “human failings” or of “somehow missing the mark”.
A General Human Awareness
The author Anna Blaman verbalizes this type of general human awareness of sin as follows:
Simply put, I noticed that it’s just not humanly possible for everything to be and to remain “clean” (or “pure”).
If you wanted to pay attention to something here, it would be at the cost of something there; if you let your heart go this way, you would leave the other way out in the cold … You are faced constantly with your own human deficiency, a deficiency of those possibilities by which you would be able to turn into reality your ideal imagination of a wholly pure and fully responsible way of conduct. There appears to be a vast gap between moral insight and actual acts. Not a day or hour goes by where you feel guilty of falling short. You don’t do enough, and even what you accomplish is not good enough – except for coming up short. In that you succeed, for that’s who you are. This counts for me, and it applies for everyone else as well. Every day, every hour, every quarter I increase my moral debt, in regard to my job, and in the connections I have with the people with whom I interact … I catch myself all the time in my human failings, and even though this is part of my human incompleteness, I am conscious of some kind of failure … which implies that my human failings determine my human guilt. It may sound strange: to be guilty without you being able to do anything about that. But even if there is no motive, or no deliberate intent, you are aware of your shortcomings, of resulting guilt, a guilt that very much affects the things you do or don’t do.
It is an impressive quotation. Many people, who call themselves atheist and therefore explicitly say they do not believe in a God would feel some attachment to what Anna Blaman writes. On a level of immediate recognition this describes the almost-universal awareness of human failings. Somehow it rings true for a tragic understanding, an innocent type of “guilt” and a “guilty” innocence. A dualistic feeling: I can’t do it any other way, but I should act differently; from time to time I can hit myself across the head that I didn’t act the proper way. But now in the church and in our theology we need to be seriously on guard that we don’t easily take over this kind of testimony of Blaman and start to Christianize it, or that we would even regard her as an anonymous Christian.
In her personal testimony we can recognize something of the diffuse light of a kind of “general revelation” (see Romans 2:14, 15) and then remark that the Christian proclamation has some connection to the human conscience. But in the meantime there is a wide chasm between this undetermined consciousness of guilt and the confession of guilt coram Deo, before the face of God. We only know ourselves truly guilty in confrontation with the living God, in a confrontation with the cross of Christ. That sense of guilt is “foreign,” it seems alien and unacceptable, as long as the triune God, the living God who has revealed himself, is so far and vague to man. Therefore, we should not expect in advance that in the midst of these times, where God and his Word are becoming more and more obscure, that we can find much “feeling” among the people for what the Bible says about sin, guilt, and confession. Based on evangelistic motives it can become too easy and cheap to interact with the general feelings of discomfort in society, something that would then connect to a shallow and superficial proclamation of the gospel. Christ must then guarantee us a smooth, successful and streamlined way of life. But the depths of his work of atonement are not addressed, because people have never dug deep in themselves to discover the depths of being lost in sin and guilt. On the other side it may happen that in some “hyper-pious” religious circles a general feeling of gloom is recognized as the Christian awareness of misery and biblical feelings of guilt. These feelings can even be accompanied at times with neurotic or psychotic symptoms. A despondent lament for your own hopeless failing is something different than to confess yourself as a sinner before the God of the covenant, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Deliberate Act
The specific character of sin in light of God’s Word is that it pertains to a deliberate act of transgression of a person (or of people or society) against God. The sin can relate directly to God; for example, in blaspheming his Name or the desecration of the day of rest. When it comes down to it, also sin against the neighbour, or the sinful interaction with the inanimate creation, is sin against God. Sin is not some type of fate that happens to us. To sin is a verb, and in the substantive nouns Scripture uses for “sin” we see traces of the verbs from which these were derived. Sin is in the first place the act for which the sinner carries responsibility and liability. Sin can never be described exclusively as a failure, or as lacking something good, or an inadequacy of “being.” Sin is a ruinous influence on our existence, a disastrous corruption.
Sin as an Act and as a Condition
Even though sin is in the first place a deliberate act, yet we also need to talk about a sinful condition. The various sinful acts committed by a person are not separate from one another and cannot stand on their own. They definitely have a common origin: they are rooted in man’s corrupt heart. Behind the incidental actions lies the attitude of the heart. Sin is located not only in our will, or in our understanding, or our feelings, but in the heart. According to biblical anthropology, this implies that the heart is at the core of our being, from which all our impulses are directed. From it flow the springs of life, says Proverbs 4:23. Whoever restricts man’s sin to the sum total of his sinful acts, bypasses the core of the matter: sin as enmity against God. On account of sin man totally misses his goal: the glorification of God. Not only does he do what he shouldn’t be doing, he also leaves undone what he should be doing. He not only acts wrongly, he is wrong; he is not who he should be before God’s face. Besides the incidental and actual sins there are the ingrained sinful habits, and once again this is based on a breeding ground, a source of inner corruption. Not only in actual deeds, but also in our basic attitude, yes, in all his being man opposes the law of God’s love.
Here we see also one of the great failures of Wiersinga’s view of sin. In his doctrine there is too much of an anatomizing of sin, which in turn leads to a superficially optimistic view of repentance and the victory over sin.
Further Refinement Needed
Having shown the emphasis on the total and radical character of sin, this does not exclude a certain gradation and nuancing. There is the danger that there is such a general view of sin that it may leave the impression that any opposition to sin or any intent to do good will be frustrated. What sense would there be for such opposition and good intentions if everything lies under sin’s doom, and we are unable to do anything but increase our guilt every day? But then we need to go back to what we said before, to the view of sin from Golgotha. At his crucifixion, did not Jesus pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)!
There was blindness and ignorance among those who persisted in the execution of this crucifixion. Only because of the revelatory preaching of Pentecost do many start to realize what they have actually done (Acts 2:23, 36-37).
Although at the core of each and every sin there is rebellion against God’s authority and an affront to his love, it makes a difference whether this is a case of evil intent, deliberate hardening, or error and ignorance. In discussing some of the biblical data we have seen how Scripture indicates further nuancing, further refinement. For the dark and exceptional possibility of having committed sin against the Holy Spirit, I refer back to what was written in chapter two. This nuancing also needs to be applied when we discuss the universal character of sin. All people are sinners, but that does not mean they have all progressed in equal measure in their sin.
The apostle Paul, speaking in the context of a judicial indictment with universal reach (Rom. 1-3), speaks also about Gentiles who “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (2:14, 15). In Acts 28 the inhabitants of the island of Malta appear to help Paul and the other shipwrecked people in his company with charity and benevolence. In more places we meet such humanity among Gentiles. It is not the case that on account of the universal reality of sin that the same yardstick is applied to everything (see Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:15-17; Rom. 13:3; 1 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 4:8). A. Noordegraaf notes correctly that “on the basis of our confession about the corruption of man we may not allege the argument that all traces of humanity and charity apart from Christ are to be seen as hypocrisy, and so to disqualify these as morally evil.” On the other hand such symptoms of humanity do not mean that the depravity of man isn’t altogether as bad as it may appear. We see God’s hand in this, who through his common grace restrains and governs evil. On account of this preserving and protecting goodness of God the world has not turned into a hell, and it is still possible to live and function together as people on planet Earth.
The Struggle against Sin Has a Purpose
When we speak not only in general and universal terms, but also in specific and gradual terms about sin, it will become clear that there is purpose in a counter-movement of our struggle against sin. Sin can be pushed back; it can be constrained. There may be gratitude for the inhibition and restraint of sin in society. Gratitude is also in place where man is on guard for emerging evil. Someone who walks around with hatred in his heart can humbly acknowledge God for his protection, in that such thoughts do not result in actual murder.
The confession of sin does not simply get lost in all sorts of generalities. “We’re all sinners, and we sin every day,” yes, but before God’s face the evil is named concretely and confessed explicitly (Ps. 32). Making evil concrete also applies when we confess our misdeeds to each other (James 5:16).
A further specification of sin can also be shown by paying attention to whom our sins are directed against, even though ultimately all sin is directed against God. With J.A. Heyns we can make a distinction between man’s sin in relation a) to God; b) to one’s neighbour; c) to oneself; d) to nature; e) to culture in art, science and technology; and f) to the corporate structures of society.
Of course, there are many other potential classifications, and all sorts of attempts have been made to assign a “specific gravity” to the various kinds of sin. This makes for many precarious situations because all too quickly the arbitrariness of the classifications makes us lose sight of the essential unity of sin as an attitude, and starts to blur the lines.
Not Everything under One Denominator
But when the relativity of such a system of classification is kept in mind, it can help us see how sin can manage to find all sorts of shortcuts and paths we may not be immediately aware of. It does not serve us well to put everything in the doctrine of sin simply on one level, as is done by Wiersinga. Sin affects the personal relationship with God, but there is also a collective “sin of the world,” spoken of in singular term in John 1:29. Sin occurs in individual relationships, but it is also evident in various structures and it is further condensed in all kinds of institutions. The disrupted relationship between man and his brother is often seen in much larger dimensions in an impersonal society, where people have become like numbers, and where the individual is being sacrificed unscrupulously to the system. There is a close connection between the forbidden fruit of Genesis 3, Cain’s fratricide in Genesis 4, and the building of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. “Cain’s act of killing has taken on many forms, from the first murder to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and to the weapons of mass destruction” (A. Noordegraaf). Whoever reflects on the essence of sin should not start with the structures in their entirety, but should neither get stuck at the relationships on a micro level. In their social proclamations, Israel’s prophets raised the issue of macro-ethics. They took fervent issue with the neglect of the covenant of the Lord, which resulted in the oppression of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. The alienation from the living God was palpable for a man like Amos as he prophesied against the unjust structures of the Israelite community of that time.
This, however, does not imply that we should adopt the confusing phraseology that speaks of “corporate sin” and even “repentance or sanctification of the structures.” The unjust structures were put in place and are being maintained by people. The responsibility for what these people do or don’t do becomes clearer when we notice the corporate impact of their individual and collective sin. Sin hides itself, entrenches itself in the various structures of society. Preaching that uncovers such sin is therefore critical of the culture. Personal conversion must have consequences for how I interact in society, for the manner in which I operate in social, political, and economical structures. Does Wiersinga have it right when at least on this point he says that sin in our Christian tradition has become a private matter? Sin is often regarded exclusively as a private issue, something that only affects the individual. Let us be on guard that we don’t go from one extreme to the other, though, as we speak about privatization and politicizing. Rightly so, in our actual considerations attention needs to be given to sin on a larger scale. In such manner, E. Schuurman examines the Babel-motive behind various technological developments of our age. Man is not satisfied with his position as God’s steward or manager, but man wants to be his own boss; yes, when it comes down to it, he even wants to be the creator. Fallen man wants to realize his own kingdom, as cultural architect and builder. He wants to make a name for himself with great scientific achievements and technical accomplishments, and in this way create his own utopia. This was also the background of Babel (Gen. 11:6). This motive of the “Babilon culture” arises time and again throughout the centuries, and in our day and age it’s especially relevant. This means that through science and technology people want to cross boundaries in a titanic effort to save themselves, which instead threatens to lead to a worldwide self-destruction. Modern man expects everything from his own thinking, his own actions. In the meantime he is becoming a prisoner of science and technology. He brings down all sorts of catastrophes upon himself because he cannot control the powers that he himself has uncovered. This oppressive development can be illustrated through many examples, such as the distribution and refinement of nuclear weapons, genetic manipulation (tinkering with man’s hereditary material), the autonomous decision-making when it comes to end-of-life issues, the pollution of the environment.
Is not the awareness of sin, especially in regard to these macro-levels, very underdeveloped within orthodox Christianity? Or can we speak of a shift toward a good, wholesome broadening of the notion of sin?
In the Reformed tradition, how long has there not been a blind spot in regard to environmental issues? In this way “nature could end up in the stranglehold” (Ole Jensen) of the expansive Western economy, with at least the tacit support from many orthodox Christians. We need to realize more acutely than ever that the fall into sin permeates also the distorted relationship of man and nature. These days the environment needs to be stringently protected from ruthless man’s exploits and violations. We need to learn to realize, in our present-day awareness of sin through uncovering our mismanagement of God’s creation, that sanctification also has everything to do with a new lifestyle. In the Spirit’s power we need to fight against egotism and self-interest, against exploitation and destruction of our environment.
A Merciless Economy
In similar fashion we can address sin on a macro-level in the area of economics, with the merciless exploitation of third-world countries under back cover of economic theories and schemes, which have as the highest aim the continuous growth of our rich Western economy. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This attitude of Cain is manifested in hugely magnified proportions in the rich people of this world, when we do not concern ourselves with the countless Abels who die from hunger and misery.
Sin as Inertia
There is wisdom in Barth’s distinction of sin as pride, sluggishness (or inertia), and untruth. In this way sin appears as a caricature of Christ’s three-fold office of king, priest, and prophet. If sin is understood in terms of pride only, one could be deceived into a form of Anabaptist world-avoidance, a flight from the responsibility that accompanies life in this current era. If you were to describe sin purely as inertia, as sinning against hope, you would make yourself helpless against the revolutionary sentiment and enormous drive of the modern “Babel-culture.” The essence of sin is rebellion against the God of love, who has fully revealed himself in Christ. It is an attack on God’s justice that will be asserted against Christ until the end. Herein lies the hub of sin, and radiating from it we see it spreading its tentacles in many various ways in all directions.
A Comprehensive View
Ultimately and in principle, sin is one. In sin everything is interrelated and connected. A tight separation between the personal and the historic-social dimension of the concept of sin will lead to a hopeless corruption of the gospel.
Sin is both individual and corporate. Sin is both an attack on God’s holy majesty as well as an armament race and economic oppression. People are simultaneously sinners and victims: sinners who need to repent, and victims who need to be helped and freed. Repentance is then turning to a new life with God, but also a commitment to pursue justice in the midst of historically grown structures of injustice and discrimination.
This article was translated by Wim Kanis