Rising elsewhere, sin “came into the world” (Rom 5:12) when Adam succumbed on being tempted by another. The full responsibiltiy for the presence and consequences of sin in the world, nonetheless, fell full weight upon man. Man sinned, man must die. Death itself silences every attempt to transfer even partially man’s guilt upon Satan in whom sin arose and by whom man was tempted. Neither sin, nor death itself for all its finality, is the last word about the sinner, for if “by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:21). If sin (and death) was projected through a demonic temptation as a possibility, and through Adam’s transgression entered the world as an actuality, sin (and death) is also cosmically defeated and abolished in man’s world and history through God’s Man, Jesus the Christ. Through Christ sin is undone and forgiven, death ends in resurrection, sinners become saints, and he “who has the power of death” is destroyed (Heb 2:14).
Sin and freedom.
The concept of freedom does not explain sin. While sin is not unrelated to freedom, the latter does not explain the rise of the former. God has authentic freedom and cannot sin, and God created man with a freedom that was morally qualified and whose continuance depended on a refraining from sin. Man as created possessed the ability not to sin, and the man recreated in Christ, and begotten of God, “does not sin” (1 John 5:18). The ability to sin is not of the essence of freedom. True freedom is constituted by man’s created, and later recreated, ability to do the good, not by a morally unqualified faculty to do either the one or the other. Freedom belongs to the essence of man as created by God and as restored by Christ; in neither instance is it a morally neutral and unqualified aspect of humanity. The effect of human sin upon freedom is defined in Biblical thought, therefore, not as another form of freedom, but rather as slavery and bondage (Rom 6). Man as created was no more free to sin than, having sinned and fallen into moral bondage, he is free again to become what he once was. Sin constitutes a loss, not an exercise of freedom. Sin is a mystery, immoral and irrational, whose denouement is not found in the concept of human freedom. Freedom as an explanation of sin leads invariably into some form of Pelagianism and Arminianism.
If in freedom man could sin against his Maker, freedom by the same definition would contain the possibility of man’s self-propelled return to his Maker. If sin is a true exercise of freedom, such freedom, even after sin, remains also free both to act in Pelagian, semi-Pelagian, or Arminianistic fashion to undo its sin and to return to God—or to refuse to return to God.
According to the Genesis account of man’s fall into sin, man was not free to sin, but under divine command not to sin, on threat of death. Adam and Eve were under the restrictive divine command not to do what they in fact did. Freedom, as authority, is comprised of the components: might plus right. An authority which exercises a might without right is a totalitarian perversion of authority; a freedom which does that which it has no right to do is an anarchistic perversion of true freedom.
The theological tenet that God created man free, that is, with a freedom that was free to sin (posse peccāre), is an explanation of sin in terms of sin. If God had endowed man with such freedom, God could not in justice allow man’s freedom to suffer that bondage which sin inflicts upon freedom.
In Biblical thought, however, man’s act of sin is regarded as a loss of freedom. According to the Genesis account of the Fall, man loses his right to existence in the Garden of Eden, his right to life, and his right to be himself—naked and not ashamed. In the continuing Biblical account, man as sinner is exhibited as no longer free to be himself. He is either a slave to sin and under the power of death, a devotee of idols—who in this devotion to idols becomes sub-human and like his idols (Ps 115:8), or he becomes a captive to grace and through this captivity again receives his true freedom as a gift from God, a freedom permitting him to enjoy release from, and forgiveness for, his sinful past and the gift of grace that justifies his right to live in an open and unending future.
Sin and divine sovereignty.
Nor is the origin of sin accounted for in a Biblically acceptable manner by the assertion that man is the secondary, and God the primary, ultimate cause of sin. Well-meaning but profoundly misguided defenders of the sovereignty of God have often declared that God Himself is the source of sin. God is said to have willed sin, to be its primal cause, and even to have created sin. While such assertions are projected in defense of divine sovereignty, they are essentially blasphemous. It is deeply significant that none who make these bold assertions have been known to articulate them in their prayers and worship of God; none, confessing his sins, asserts before God what he claims in his theology: that God to whom he prays for the forgiveness of his sins, is the primary cause of his sin.
Rejecting both the notion that God willed sin and that sin is the product of chance, sober Christian thought has never dared say more than that God “permitted sin.” The clearest expression of the relationship of the divine sovereign will to sin is not discoverable by a search in the area of the origin of sin, but is found at the cross where God at the cost of the death of His own Son overcomes and banishes sin.
Every rational analysis of sin reveals, as did Kierkegaard’s psychological analysis of sin, that sin presupposes itself, and the history of Christian thought demonstrates that explanations of sin reduce sin into something that carries no guilt and requires no confession. Sin must be acknowledged and confessed, not explained. The Bible no more explains the rise of sin in the world of the angels and its connection with the origin of sin in man’s world, than it explains how man as God’s creation could sin. There is neither a good moral reason nor a valid rational reason for the reality of sin. There can no more be a truly moral reason for evil than there can be a valid reason for irrationality. Sin is both immoral and irrational.
History and fall.
Sin is an essentially historical phenomenon. It has an event-character. To become real, it must happen. It is not an event within the trinitarian activity within the godhead, an activity both necessary and (therefore) eternal. The historical is neither necessary nor eternal and sin, also being neither, is historical. Being real, sin happened once upon a time. The Fall recorded in Genesis is a historical reality.
The Genesis sequence of Creation-Fall also clearly teaches that sin is neither an item of creation, nor a quality of creation that in the process of time is progressively transformed into emerging good. Sin, on the contrary, is a contradiction to all created and uncreated reality. It is destructive of all good. The substitution of an evolutionary development of the good for the Biblical historical Fall is a misreading of the good that God in history accomplishes through
No Christian can say why he sinned. If he could give a reason for, and thus an explanation of, his sin, sin would require neither forgiveness nor cancellation; being a justified act, it would have a right to exist. Both the origin of sin and its continuance in the life of every man is and remains an enigma for which there is no apology and no known theodicy. Sin has no defense, no right to existence. Every explanation of sin in terms of human freedom turns sin into something that carries neither guilt nor need of repentance; when explained in terms of the causality of the sovereign divine will, sin is naturalized within the being of God Himself.
This is a theological not a temporal concept and, therefore, throws no clear light on the origin of sin. Original sin refers neither to the first of all sins, nor to the first sin in human history, but to the first sin of Adam and only to that and not to the subsequent sins of Adam. In human history, Eve sinned first; nonetheless, it was by Adam’s (later) sin that “sin came into the world, and death through sin” (Rom 5:12). Original sin is the first sin of Adam, the source of all other sins, including Adam’s subsequent sins, and is that power by which death passed upon all men, even though all men have not sinned in the manner of Adam’s first sinful act (Rom 5:14).
Original sin provides a clue to the nature of sin and of death. According to the Genesis account, original sin is a proud, loveless, rebellious, thankless, destructive act of self-assertion, first against the God who gave man his reality and, simultaneously, against both the self and every other form of created reality. By his initial act of sin, Adam broke that relationship to God, to Eve, and to the natural world, on which in real though differing degrees, his own life and well-being depended. Adam’s sin is a declaration of self-sufficiency; he willed to go it alone. By that original, first sin of Adam everything is alienated; Adam and Eve each hide from the other by donning clothes, Adam hides from God, Adam blames God and Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and the self is alienated from itself. To this deprivation of the self, of everything, both the self and the “not-self,” there is a corresponding total depravity in which the self is deprived of all those moral and spiritual qualities that constitute the authentic self and its relation to all that is not-self. Man has lost self-realization; he is his own worst enemy. The self is totally depraved, for the self can do nothing worse or more destructive to God, to his fellows, his world, and to himself, than sin. Were it not so, death and hell would be an overkill that exceeded sin’s guilt quality. Original sin—and all subsequent sins merely reemphasize it—so effectively breaks man’s relationship to all reality: the self, God, fellow man, nature, that man cannot reinstate original, authentic relationships. This is disclosed supremely at the cross where man kills Him in whom all reality, divine and created, is centered.
Thus original sin as that act which breaks all man’s created God-relationships is neither merely moral, intellectual, nor affective, but something deeper than all of these. It is in essence religious. As David said, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight” (Ps 51:4). It is this divine referent that constitutes the essence of original sin and via this reference becomes also man’s sin against himself, his fellow man, and nature. The nature of sin is wholly destructive; sin, therefore, elicits those full realities which the Biblical concepts of death and the infinite divine wrath convey.
That sin renders the sinner totally depraved cannot be read from human experience. Although history is saturated with manifold forms of sinful action, a true recognition of sin—as distinct from human error, ignorance, folly, or frailty—does not occur within the field of human observation or experience. No road leads from the experience of sin to the true knowledge of sin. The distinctively religious dimension of sin as an act which is in the first instance against God, can be disclosed only by God Himself. Man’s moral behavior is often better than total depravity can account for, an ambiguity which derives from God’s gracious operations upon man, and a truth that can be known only by revelation. That every sin against the neighbor, against man’s natural environment, is also a sin against God, is not a humanly attainable knowledge unless imparted by divine revelation. Similarly, the knowledge that the sinner’s right relationship to God, neighbor, and natural environment cannot be reconstituted except by the grace of regeneration, can also be known only by means of revelation.
Sin and grace.
Sin is transgression of the law, but it is never merely that. Since the purpose of law is grace as indicated by the fact that it was given to Israel within a covenant situation (Gal 3:17) and by the law’s own introductory preface, sin is always an act against the goodness and grace of God.
This quality of sin as an act against the grace of God, emphasizes that sin is never an individual, but always a social matter. Grace is an expression of God’s will to be with and for man in a community in which man is both for God and for his neighbor. This social character of grace corresponds to the demand of the law that we love both God and our neighbor. He who loves God cannot hate his neighbor; and he who hates his neighbor cannot love God (1 John 2, 3). Sin as the rejection of this gracious divine will to community is, therefore, not an individualistic act. It is rather a social act—even in its negative, anti-social form. Further, for the reason that sin is a social act, sin is committed not only by the single individual, but by social groups and can be embodied in social structures. A nation can sin no less than an individual; there are national sins and nations, no less than individuals, are called to repentance and amendment of life. Similarly, the Church can sin and be called to confession and amendment of life, though it must be admitted that rarely do churches do what they require of their individual members.
This communal, social character of sin which reflects the communal, social character of divine grace, helps one to understand why justice is never an individual, but always and inherently, a social concept. There is no individual, as distinct from a social justice. All justice is social justice, because justice is the expression of God’s holiness as it maintains God’s gracious purpose to be with and for man against man’s sinful assault against that purpose.
It must also be observed that because of the social character of sin, the distinction between a “personal” and a “social” ethic is grounded in a misunderstanding of the nature of sin. A “personal” ethic always turns out to be an ethic of the individual in contrast to a social ethic. All sin is, indeed, personal, whether that of the individual or of the corporate personality of the Church or nation—as is also all love and right doing. But there is no individualistic personal ethic, as there is no individualistic grace or individualistic justice. The Biblical ideas of grace, love, justice, as the Biblical teaching that Adam’s original sin is also man’s sin and Christ’s one act of obedience can be man’s righteousness, are in theory surrendered when sin is individualistically defined by reference to a legalistic understanding of the law, without reference to the social character of God’s grace.
This corporate quality of sin is also clearly seen in the NT teachings that one can be forgiven by God only as he forgives others (Matt 6:14, 15), can worship God at the altar only when in right relationship with his brother (Matt 5:23, 24), and can pray properly only when be addresses God as “our” Father and requests daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from evil as he prays in pl. personal pronouns (“us” and “our”).
Sin and punishment.
Sin requires punishment. As an affront against the infinite majesty of God, sin calls for infinite punishment, and that without limit. The Bible, therefore, speaks of the wages of sin being death and of eternal punishment in hell. Such punishment is the reflex of the holiness of God whereby He maintains Himself against man’s sin. In responding to sin, God’s holiness takes the form of justice expressing itself in infinite wrath and unlimited judgment.
This divine response, however, takes place in history only at the cross where the
Original sin is the source of all other sins and these are so manifold as to defy number or name, yet each of them reflects something of the highly complex nature of sin. In view of this complexity it is not surprising that the Bible uses many words to denote sin. Sin is, moreover, in Biblical thought many other things—unbelief, distrust, ingratitude, lovelessness, hatred. The greatest sin occurs in reaction to the cross where the nature of sin in all its aspects is revealed, and original sin and all its subsequent historical expressions is overcome and forgiven by God’s gracious action in Christ. The greatest sin, therefore, is the rejection of Christ crucified who shall judge every man according to the Gospel (Rom 2:16), which is to say, in reference to God’s gracious will and purpose. See Depravity; Grace.