Two female scholars have released books in 2021 that have caused a big kerfluffle in the evangelical world. Both books critique the brand that has become American evangelicalism. One of those books is by Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, who holds a PhD from Notre Dame. She’s well-credentialed and knows what she’s talking about. The book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You can watch a talk by Du Mez about her book here. The book jacket declares:
In Jesus and John Wayne, a seventy-five-year history of American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes Du Mez demolishes the myth that white evangelicals “held their noses” in voting for Donald Trump. Revealing the role of popular culture in evangelicalism, Du Mez shows how evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism in the mold of Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and above all, John Wayne. As Du Mez observes, the beliefs at the heart of white evangelicalism today preceded Trump, and will outlast him.
I come to this book as an evangelical who:
Regularly criticizes the American Church when it weds itself to a peculiar brand of American exceptionalism,
Recognizes that some of the positions the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) takes are less than biblical and heavily influenced by a particular cultural expression of Christianity. I have never recommended any resource from CBMW and never will.
Believes women are called to serve in local congregations in roles beyond nursery and elementary-aged Sunday School.
So … I’m two chapters into this book. So far, I’m disappointed.
Du Mez’s discussion of Theodore Roosevelt as the archetype “manly man” is cursory and selective. She paints Roosevelt as if he set out to fashion a persona for mercenary motives. She doesn’t mention that Roosevelt was an intensely intellectual boy who only overcame crippling physical challenges by aid of exercise and a love affair with the outdoors. Du Mez skips this childhood context, mentions Roosevelt’s time “out West,” then skips right to San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders. She doesn’t mention his scholarly monograph on naval history, his time as NYPD Commissioner, his outdoors writing, or his stint at the Navy Department. It seems as if she strings selective anecdotes together to paint the portrait she wants. Barry Goldwater did try to resurrect Roosevelt’s ghost in a campaign advertisement, but that was hardly Roosevelt’s fault.
Du Mez’ breezy coverage of the evangelical marriage to conservative politics in the 1940s and 1950s is adequate, but very short.
If it doesn’t get more substantive, this book will be a major disappointment that doesn’t live up to the praise it’s received. If you’re looking to be confirmed in your preexisting animus towards evangelicalism, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a persuasive and scholarly critique as an aid to some introspection, it ain’t happening, so far … and I’m actually looking for it.
I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:
Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.
Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.
I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.
In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:
I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.
Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?
If you want to read about original sin, then this article is for you!
Why it Matters
Every orthodox Christian agrees “we’re born as sinners.” But, there are some important questions left to answer once we get beyond that:
Is original sin a “thing” to be transmitted (a la a virus), or a status?
How does it “get” from our first parents to us?
Are we guilty because of our first parent’s sin, or our own?
Are we born guilty, or are we in some sort of probationary state?
Are we born corrupted, or (again) is this a probationary thing?
Two Generic Options
Natural headship: Sin is conceived of as a metaphysical “thing” that’s transmitted by some kind of vehicle from the father (especially in medieval thought), or from both parents. Often analogized as an “infection” that spreads from a host, or the fruit of a tree root, water from a fountain, or a “stain” which spreads like a malevolent inkblot. Medieval theologians (following Augustine, among others) believed sin was transmitted by semen from the male. Not that the semen itself was sinful, but that it was the vehicle for the corrupted human nature which, in turn, contaminated the soul.
Representative headship. There is little speculation about the vehicle for transmission, because sin is not a “thing” that travels about. Human beings (as a corporate body) are simply declared both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupt because of our first parent’s sin. It’s a legal declaration; a state of being. We exist, therefore we’re guilty and corrupt. Adam is our representative head in our default state, and Christ is the representative head for our rescue.
You can represent the most critical differences like this:
The basic essence of “original sin” is that, because of our first parent’s actions, mankind as a corporate body is both (1) guilty, and (2) corrupted. I deliberately do not use terms like “inherit” or “infection.” Representative/federal headship is the means of imputation.
The two passages most clearly at issue are Romans 5:12-20, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Neither passage delves to the level of genes, chromosomes or semen to explain the exact vehicle for sin’s transmission―so neither should we. Paul states the brute fact that Adam’s sin constitutes all people as “sinners.” Adam brought lawlessness, and sin “passes through to all men — because of Adam’s headship everyone ‘committed lawlessness'” (my translation). By way of Adam’s trespass, there is a guilty verdict against all people. Romans 5:18 is the clearest text.
The descriptions of sin as a “disease,” an “infection” or a flow of “water from a fountain” are simply vivid (but mistaken) metaphors Christians have reached for in order to explain how this transmission happens. But, these metaphors go too far. Paul simply says Adam’s sin constitutes us all as sinners with a guilty verdict against us. Transmission is a fait accompli because we exist.
Our first parent’s sin is contracted and not committed―a state and not an act. Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault … it is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …” In other words, because of our first parent’s sin, we are all born both (1) guilty, and (2) morally corrupted by immediate imputation. Their guilt and corruption is our own, because original sin is a representative imputation, which is precisely how Paul framed the matter.
Because it is a legal status, a verdict which brings both guilt and moral corruption, original sin is not a tangible, physical thing which can be transmitted. Thus, speculations about semen and references to “spreading stains” (etc.) are speculative and unhelpful. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith therefore has the best explanation of original sin, from the four we survey below. It rightly never mentions “inheritance” or any medical or water analogies.
It is “original sin” in the sense that “from that, as the first guilt of all, there afterwards arose and went forth all its subsequent evils.”
Survey of Selected Creeds
The Reformation era creeds emphasize original sin as a disease; a hereditary trait that’s passed down by generation―federal headship. More modern confessions downplay federal headship, and drop the infection/disease language
2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Art. 3
By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.
This is an implied representative headship that’s a bit deliberately ambiguous about the soteriological implications. Sin entered the world by our first parent’s free choice. Our posterity “inherit” a nature inclined to sin. And, we don’t become “sinners” until we are “capable of moral action.” This is the infamous, Baptist “age of accountability.”
1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Art. 3
We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.
Our first parents chose to sin (“voluntary transgression”), and so we’re all sinners by choice because our nature is “utterly void” of holiness and we’re “positively inclined” to evil and thus without excuse. This is no discussion of “transmission,” and no “infection” language.
Westminster Confession of Faith, §6.3
They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
Adam and Eve are the root, and their guilt is assigned to all their posterity. Death in sin and corrupted nature passed along by ordinary generation. There is no attempt to locate the vehicle for this transmission in the male’s sperm, a la Augustine and the medieval theologians.
Belgic Confession, Art. 15
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them …
This confessions tilts to representative headship. Original sin is a corruption of the whole nature. It’s a hereditary disease that extends to everybody. Infants are infected in the womb. Again, there is no attempt to drill down to specify the vehicle for the transmission. Sin issues forth from us like water from a fountain. It comes from Adam’s disobedience, like a root.
Creeds are nice. They’re helpful guardrails to make sure you’re not leaving the reservation. But, scripture is the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Let’s look at the two key passages.
so this is how death passed through to all people―
because of Adam’s headshipeveryone “committed lawlessness.”
Paul says sin entered the world by means of one man. The thought is that:
Adam brought lawlessness,
and lawlessness brought death,
and, this is how death “passes through” to all men―because of Adam’s representative sin
The passage does not say death passes to all men because we each commit individual, volitional sin. The entire sentence is in the aorist tense-form, indicating a perfective aspect. The context shows us a chain of causation that happened entirely in the past, long ago:
sin entered by means of one man (a historical event, in the past),
and so death passed to all men (a historical event, in the past),
because all men sinned (a historical act, in the past)
I wasn’t there, in the Garden. But, I “sinned,” somehow. Either I myself participated directly or indirectly, or my representative Adam did. Given my discussion in the rest of the passage, I believe my representative Adam did. So, I rendered it that way in translation.
It would be odd indeed if Paul broke the chain of historical events to introduce some kind of present action (“all men now sin”). You’d have to render the verb as a culminative aorist, and/or turn the verb into a predicate (“all men began to be sinners”). This does violence to the grammar. Erickson has a helpful, short discussion.
It does not specify the precise means of transmission … because there is no “transmission” per se.
13: for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
Sin existed long before God gave the law at Sinai, but all the specific, individual violations didn’t count before it was given. I take this to mean that, before Sinai, people were guilty in a general way because they didn’t pledge allegiance to the one true God. But, after Sinai, there was a higher, sharper standard in keeping with the more specific revelation.
14: Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But still (ἀλλʼ), despite that, death controlled and ruled (ἐβασίλευσεν) from Adam all the way to Moses―even controlling those who did not sin like Adam did. Adam is a type for Christ, in that he’s analogous to Him in a representative way.
15: But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.
But, Christ’s “free gift” is not like Adam’s sin―why not? Because where Adam’s sin brings death, much more has God’s grace and His free gift abounded for many. They’re both representatives, but the consequences of the “trespass v. free gift” are quite different. That is the contrast, as Paul now explains …
16: And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation [a guilty verdict], but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification [acquittal].
This is self-explanatory.
17: For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Paul explains (γὰρ) why he just wrote what he wrote. Because of Adam’s trespass, death controlled and ruled by means of him; that is, because of that guilty verdict. Even though Adam is dead he is the means by which, by extension, death still controls unbelievers. Death is the active agent.
But, turning the tables, those who receive salvation (the acquittal) will now reign with life through the man Jesus Christ! Believers become the controlling, ruling, reigning agents, by way of Jesus.
we have acquittal (that is, life!) for all people.
Again, Paul does not specify how the transmission happens. He simply says that, by means of one trespass, God renders a guilty verdict against everybody. This strongly implies Federal headship. Our volitional acts are irrelevant. We exist from Adam, therefore we are guilty.
Again, we have representative headship. Adam’s sin makes us “sinners” and assigns that status to us. Our volitional acts have no bearing because our nature has been corrupted. Still, Paul does not specify the precise means of this imputation.
just as in association with Adam everyone dies,
so also in association with Christ everyone will be made alive!
Again, there is no description of the exact means of transmission―just a statement that death came by way of Adam.
Of the theologians surveyed below, Emil Brunner is most biblical and helpful. Aquinas gives an assist by noting that original sin is a status or state, not a volitional act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds upon this edifice and expresses it better than Aquinas.
Unfortunately, at least two theologians seriously misunderstand Brunner or cite him without actually reading him. “Adam” is not the single man Adam, but the “one humanity” represented by him. So, Paul when Paul refers to “Adam,” he means that man who is really all of us.
Before Christ we are one indivisible humanity. The act of rebellion which I see in Christ as my sin, I see there as the identical act of all. All particularization and calculation is impossible.
The very idea of inherited sin makes “sin” a biological, natural fact―“[b]ut this is never the view of the Bible.” The standard theory of “inherited” sin is “completely foreign to the thought of the Bible,” but the motivation behind the “inheritance” motif is quite correct―sin is a dominant force and humanity is bound together in a solidarity of guilt.
The key passages are Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5:12ff, but they do not say what the traditional interpretation says they say. Psalm 51 simply suggests a common experience of sin binds everyone together. Augustine mistranslated Rom 5:12, which actually “says nothing about the way in which this unity in ‘Adam’ came into existence.” It “does not say a word about an ‘inherited’ sin through natural descent, nor about a special connexion between sin and conception.” It simply states Adam and his descendants are involved in death because they commit sin.
There is a corporateness to our sin because of Adam. “In Jesus Christ we stand before God as one ‘Adam’ … we are not dealing with chromosomes and genes … every man is this Self, this sinner …” If a man was “made this way” and “inherited” sin is a trait or quality, then “[m]an cannot help it, and he has nothing to be ashamed of in the fact. God has made him so.”
Brunner sees sin as a relational stance; almost (but not quite) a state of being. Sin is “the very existence of man apart from God―that it means being opposed to God, living in the wrong, perverted relation to God … But sin, like faith, lies beyond the empirical sphere, in the sphere of man’s relation to God.”
He holds to a hybrid of the natural and federal positions, and sees great value in viewing humanity as a corporate personality. “To my mind, it is not necessarily a case of choosing between these interpretations; each sheds light on the other and thus on the connection with Adam.” He sees a problem with imputing guilt to people before they commit a volitional act; it “is inherently unjust.” So, “it seems clear that both the forensic and the natural relationships are mutually necessary.”
Augustine (354 – 430)
Fallen humans pass their ruined nature on through the male’s sperm:
Therefore the whole human race was in the first man, and it was to pass from him through the woman into his progeny, when the married pair had received the divine sentence of condemnation.
[H]e produced offspring in the same condition to which his fault and its punishment had reduced him, that is, liable to sin and death.
Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141)
Original sin is “corruption or vice which we take by birth through ignorance in the mind, through concupiscence in the flesh.”
Ignorance: “On account of pride the mind was darkened through ignorance …”
Concupiscence: “… the natural desire of affection transgressing order and going beyond measure … [f]or the desire transgresses order, when we desire those things which we ought not to desire.”
Original sin spreads to the soul by association with the flesh. Unless the soul is aided by grace, “it can neither receive knowledge of truth nor resist the concupiscence of the flesh. Now this evil is present in it not from the integrity of its foundation but from association with corruptible flesh. And in truth this corruption, since it is transmitted from our first parent to all posterity through propagation of flesh, spreads the stain of original sin among all men in the vice of ignorance and concupiscence.”
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)
Original sin is the privation of original justice and the inordinate disposition of the soul and the nature. In its essence, then, original sin is:
privation of original justice in formal terms, and
concupiscence (that is, inordinate lusts in general; “turning inordinately to mutable good”) in material terms
We must view sin corporately. Just as a hand is not responsible for a murder, but the entire man, so Adam is our representative corporate head. Thus, original sin is a sin of nature.
And just as the actual sin that is committed by a member of the body, is not the sin of that member, except inasmuch as that member is a part of the man, for which reason it is called a human sin; so original sin is not the sin of this person, except inasmuch as this person receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the sin of nature, according to Eph ii. 3 …
Because sin came “by one man” (Rom 5:12), Aquinas declares “original sin is transmitted to the children, not by the mother, but by the father.” Thus “the child pre-exists in its father as the active principle, and in its mother, as in its material and passive principle.”
Therefore the semen is the vehicle which transmits the corrupted nature to the human soul:
… the motion of the semen is a disposition to the transmission of the rational soul: so that the semen by its own power transmits the human nature from parent to child, and with that nature, the stain which infects it: for he that is born is associated with his first parent in his guilt, through the fact that he inherits his nature from him by a kind of movement which is that of generation.
“[G]uilt is not actually in the semen, yet human nature is there virtually, accompanied by that guilt.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism strongly emphasizes the corporate aspect from Romans 5, then cautions “the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.” Their sin affected their human nature which they then transmitted in a fallen state, “by propagation.”
Original sin is “the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice.” “And that is why original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’―a state and not an act.” Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”
Grudem speaks of “inherited sin,” which consists of “inherited guilt” and “inherited corruption.” Referring to “inherited guilt, Grudem explains “the sin spoken of does not refer to Adam’s first sin, but to the guilt and tendency to sin with which we are born …”. He draws upon Romans 5:12ff and concludes “all members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the Garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam … God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us …”
His treatment of children dying in infancy is outstanding, and far superior to Erickson’s view.
Erickson holds to a natural, seminal headship (a la Augustine). This way he upholds the corporate aspect of Romans 5:12ff, thus “[o]n that basis, we were actually present within Adam, so that we all sinned in his act. There is no injustice, then, to our condemnation and death as a result of original sin.”
There is only a “conditional imputation of guilt” until a person reaches the “age of responsibility.” At that point, “[w]e become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature … if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying it was good.” In this way, Erickson concludes, “[w]e become guilty of that sin without having committed any sin of our own” ―that is, when we “become aware of our own tendency toward sin” and approve of it.
 Rolland McCune has an excellent summary of natural v. representative headship, and argues convincingly for representative/federal headship, basically following John Murray (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), pp. 2:73-83). I didn’t rely on McCune’s arguments here, but instead based my conclusions on an exegesis of Romans 5:12-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22. But still, McCune’s survey of the whole matter is quite useful.
 “The perspective is corporate rather than individual. All people, Paul teaches, stand in relationship to one of two men, whose actions determine the eternal destiny of all who belong to them,” (Gordon Fee, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 315).
 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith §1.7.26, trans. Roy DeFerrari (reprint; Ex Fontibus Co., 2016). I added some punctuation to make the point clearer.
 The conjunction expresses the logical conclusion of Paul’s argument.
 An adverb of manner, explaining how something happened.
 The preposition ἐφʼ ᾧ is explanatory. See C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1959), p. 50), Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), p. 139. A.T. Robertson refers to this usage as “grounds” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (Nashville: B&H, 1934), p. 604). See also G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937), pp. 166-167.
The explanation is that, because of Adam’s representative sin, everyone therefore “sinned.” It is not that every single person has committed a volitional sin (the unborn?), but that Adam’s representative sin has constituted us thus. For this argument, see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 182-187). There is no good way to bring this out in translation without inserting half a sentence of interpretation. On balance, I decided I’d take a chance and do it (a la John Phillips).
 This is a stylistic alternative to another bland “because.”
 The preposition expresses association, also in the parallel clause.
 Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis seriously misunderstand Brunner and manage to quote him on everything but his actual discussion of original sin. Their treatment of him is embarrassingly bad (Integrative Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 2:189).
 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 97.
I am not a fan of the the politicization of American Christianity. I view the blend of American exceptionalism with Christianity as a very toxic stew that produces nothing but drek. Many American evangelicals would bristle at that observation, but there it is. I have written briefly on this in the past (search the tags for “Christian Nationalism”). For some good context to understand my perspective on this, I’d recommend the following:
Just this past weekend, I received a fundraising letter from a creature of the Religious Right named Ralph Reed. He’s been around for a long time. He was a “whiz kid” of the Conservative movement in the early 1990s who powered the Christian Coalition to amazing success. He is now head of the “Faith & Freedom Coalition.” He personifies the false Christianity of the most fetid corners of the Religious Right’s dank basement. I speak so strongly because I believe this amalgamation of politics + alleged Christianity is nothing more than a witches brew that has sucked many into a cesspool. Just suggest you remove your American flag from the platform or dais inside your church building, and you’ll see what I mean.
Back in 1999, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a book titled Blinded by Might (linked above). Both men were “on the ground” with Jerry Falwell during the heyday of the Moral Majority, in the early 1980s. They were key lieutenants in the movement. But, they became disillusioned. They wrote this book to warn evangelicals there was no pot of gold at the end of the political rainbow. All the effort, all the money, all the striving after House seats, Senate seats, Supreme Court seats has achieved … nothing.
In that wonderful book, Cal Thomas makes this observation:
That was in 1999, reminiscing about the good ole’ days from the early 1980s. Here is what I received from Ralph Reed this past weekend:
I used this loathsome correspondence in my sermon from this past Sunday, as I preached from Zechariah 8. Here are my excerpted remarks:
Jonathan Cruse’s book What Happens When We Worshiphas a simple point. Something important happens between us and God when we worship (p. 1). He presents a theology of worship (ch. 2-7), the pieces of a proper worship service (ch. 8-13), and some brief remarks about how to prepare for worship (ch. 14-15).
This is a book written with more zeal than tact.
The author is Very ReformedTM, which is something better experienced than described. He repeatedly impugns the motives and intent of millions of Christians across the world with broad brush accusations of mercenary pragmatism, and straw men caricatures. This is Cruse’s default rhetorical device. It doesn’t work well if you desire to reach and persuade an audience that doesn’t already agree with you. For example:
Cruse suggests that, for Christians, “[g]oing to church gets the same checkmark in the to-do list as going to the grocery store or doing homework,” (p. 1). This is unhelpful. Would Cruse really characterize his own congregation this way? Or, is he just talking about “other churches?”
He claims some Christians “dutifully suffer through the service while secretly wishing church wasn’t an obligation,” (p. 3). Who are these people? What real Christian would describe his habitual attitude this way?
Cruse writes, “Sadly, many Christians think the only way to worship with joy and gladness is through manufactured means,” (p. 3). Note his use of “many.” He then declares most churches either have an (1) entertainment approach, or (2) a mystical approach (pp. 4-8). His descriptions drip with sarcasm and scorn. He declares, but does not prove, that churches that disagree with him are motivated by mercenary pragmatism. “[I]t wins people to worship with something that will tickle their fancies and yet never save their souls,” (p. 5).
If you don’t do worship the way Cruse thinks it ought to be done, you get the impression you have compromised in some fundamental way. The problem is that Cruse never defines “worship,” and because he makes broadbrush characterizations of his targets you don’t really know who he’s talking about. Is he attacking something like Hillsong NYC? Or, my own congregation? Would Cruse accept that the local Calvary Chapel engages in authentic worship? You don’t know, because Cruse doesn’t tell you.
… when we capitulate our worship to the trends of the culture, we have lost something powerful that is meant to be happening in worship: we are meant to be separated from the world.
I agree. But, Cruse never defines the aesthetic style that he believes is “holy,” and so we have no idea what this means. I presume the local Calvary Chapel thinks their worship style is holy. According to Cruse, are they wrong? If so, why?
The entire book proceeds in this manner. Cruse’s seems impatient with congregations which are not Very ReformedTM and don’t practice his peculiar form of the Regulative Principle. Unfortunately, this negates his entire message unless you already agree with him.
The author’s historical horizon seems to begin with the Reformation. He locates orthodoxy within a framework that begins at Calvin and ends with the Puritans. He appears to lack a catholic sense of solidarity or familiarity with the global church, past and present, as betrayed by his cursory comments about mysticism (pp. 6-8). He likes to provide quotes from famous theologians from secondary sources (p. 5 (fn #2), p. 19 (fn #4-5), p. 175 (fn #2)), which is sloppy.
Cruse sees evangelism as something that happens through the means of grace during worship. He argues the only imperative verb in Mt 28:19 is “make disciples,” and cites a book in support, but not the Greek text itself (p. 21, fn. 7), which I presume he can read. He admits that, yes, you must make disciples by evangelizing, but you really make disciples by having true worship, so that’s the key thing. The church fulfills the Great Commission when it gathers for worship (pp. 21-22). The “divinely mandated” methods for church growth are the ordinary means of grace―word and sacrament (p. 115). Cruse thus unfortunately embodies the old stereotype of Reformed folks as the “frozen chosen.” His theology of evangelism is therefore unhelpful.
He has a truncated version of God as the celestial policeman. There is little love or grace. God is the stern judge, ready to kill. Cruse writes:
One pastor I know sometimes opens the worship service by saying, ‘If you are not a Christian, we are glad you are with us today. We hope you will be encouraged by your time with us. But I must warn you that we come to meet with God today, and if you are not right with Him, you may not like what He reveals to you about Himself.’ That’s the idea.
Cruse appears to lack a category for God as the grieving husband (Hosea 1-3) who seeks His darling child―whose heart yearns and aches to rescue His people (Jer 31:20) and who loves His chosen with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). His Calvinism swamps his theology proper, and so Cruse topples off the tightrope and presents a God of profound anger. In short, I think John Gill would have liked the author very much.
The otherwise positive contributions the author does make are discussed more substantively in other volumes. I suggest Hughes Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers as a guide to incorporate the traditional aspects of Western liturgy into your service, to the extent practicable. I think Cruse would appreciate much of what Olds has to say. In that respect, I’m suggesting an alternative to Cruse that upholds some of his own ideals.
I believe this is a book written for Very ReformedTM people who want to feel those warm tickles inside that tell them that, yes, they are right to be Very ReformedTM. This is fine, but it isn’t a book calculated to persuade. I’m off to listen to an Unspoken song. Unfortunately, I suspect Cruse would not approve.
This sermon presents a Christus Victor model for the atonement through the Resurrection. While the work is not included here, I’ve done extensive word studies on the “ransom” and “redeem/redemption” word groups and translated excerpts from the relevant passages ― all of which is background to the approach that frames this sermon. In short, I’m convinced that (notwithstanding the valid penal substitution angle) Christ’s death was a ransom to Satan which Jesus then took back after three days.
The analogies of the fishhook and the mousetrap are not mine, but were suggested by great theologians over 1,400 years ago. The Christus Victor model was the dominant view in the Church until the 12th century. Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor (ca. 1930) is a paradigm-shifting little book that I suspect many modern theologians cite more than they actually read. If you have questions about this model for the atonement, I suggest Gregory of Nyssa’s discussion in his catechism (ch. 22-26, see the footnotes) along with Aulen’s book. Above all, for pastors who read this, I encourage you to read beyond the narrow and “safe” lanes of your particular ecclesiastical orbit.
Seeing the Resurrection Through New Eyes
God paints reality in shades of black and white. Spiritual life or death. Salvation or damnation. Rescue or prison. Liberation or slavery. Adoption or eternal exile. Cosmic victory or defeat.
This last one is how I invite you to view the Resurrection. It’s one way Jesus viewed it. Not just payment to God for sins. Not just satisfying God’s justice and a cosmic sense of “rightness.” But a divine victory for you over the forces of real darkness.
There is darkness in this world and in our souls, you know. Why do we do bad things? Why did a madman kill a Capitol police officer two days ago? Why did a guy murder six women in Atlanta, last month? Why did Hitler exist? Stalin? Mao? Why did the U.S. government engineer and carry out forced deportation of Indians to the West in the early 19th century―something even Hitler is on record as drawing inspiration from? Why did some churches in the antebellum South own slaves? Why has there been a military coup in Myanmar? Why is this world so dark? Why is Starbucks espresso so bitter?
These are existential questions that cry out for answers. Why is there “evil” in this world, and inside me, too?
Well, because we’re sick. This world is sick. This whole creation is sick. We need to be rescued from ourselves, liberated, delivered, bought back and led to safety. Shown the way by the God who made us. Who’s working to reverse what’s gone wrong.
We’re in trouble. We’re lost. We’re without hope. We’re criminals in God’s universe. We have a prison sentence hanging over our heads … But God has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! And, He does it here, on Easter Sunday, through the resurrection.
Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son, came here to rescue us. In return, He asks us to change our allegiance. To repent. To turn. To acknowledge our insurgency against God. To apologize and mean it, and to believe He really can rescue us.
That’s what the resurrection is about. Rescue. Liberation. Being ransomed and set free from a kidnapper.
You’ve put together furniture. You know about those assembly kits. They come with pre-packed screws, Allen wrenches, washers, all that stuff. The bible’s portrait of Christ’s ministry is like that. We’re used to using only the #3 screw and the Allen wrench (penal substitution). We’ve forgotten there a #5 screw, and a different Allen wrench, and a washer or two that we can also pick up. Now, you can use the same screws for everything, and the thing will still “work.” But, it’ll work better if you use all the tools.
And so, we’ll understand Christ better if we look at all the facets of this diamond. We’re stuck on the Cross. We hardly mention the resurrection when we think of the Gospel. It’s time to redeem the empty tomb as Christ’s victory over Satan for us.
The Parable of the Strong Man―Christ as Victor
Jesus paints His interaction with Satan as a battle that He wins. In Luke 11:20-23, in the context of rejecting the accusation that He’s an agent of Satan, Jesus offers this little analogy:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
The blanks aren’t hard to fill in. Satan is the strong man guarding his home. Picture him patrolling his front yard with a shotgun and a scowl. Jesus is the stronger man who attacks Satan, overcomes him, tosses his weapons and armor aside, then takes everything that belongs to him. Mark, in his version of the same parable, records Jesus saying:
But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house (Mark 3:27).
In order to go into the house, Jesus first has to destroy, tie up, overcome, hog-tie, defeat the strong man in single combat. Then, he can plunder, steal, take by force, rob the guy’s goods from his home.
This is a battle, a combat. Jesus will crush Satan, beat him down in his own driveway, then go inside and rob everything he’s got. He’ll back a pickup up to the front door and loot everything Satan has. As Satan lies in the flowerbed moaning, Jesus will kick him in the face once more for good measure. Then, He’ll hop back in the truck and drive away with Satan’s goods in the back.
But, how does it happen? What does it look like? Jesus paints an exciting picture, but it’s a metaphor―He doesn’t mean it literally―so we wonder. Will it be a frontal assault (a la Pickett’s charge or Normandy)? Or, will it be more crafty, more sneaky, more delicious and hilarious in its victory?
Winning the Victory―The Great Payoff
I want you to think of two words: “ransom” and “redeem/redemption.” Both these terms appear in your bibles, but we’re so used to seeing them that they’ve lost their force. They’ve become Christianese, not English.
“Ransom” means what you think it means. It’s the payment that rescues someone. In the New Testament era, it usually meant the price paid to free a captive from a captor.
Let me share an example.
On 03 March 1932, someone kidnapped Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month old baby from their home in New Jersey. The mother was taking a bath and the baby was alone in the crib. When they discovered the child missing, Lindbergh grabbed a gun and searched the house and the grounds. He found a ransom note on the window sill:
Dear Sir! Have 50.000$ redy 25 000$ in 20$ bills 15000$ in 10$ bills and 10000$ in 5$ bills After 2–4 days we will inform you were to deliver the mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the Police the child is in gut care.
The kidnappers eventually raised the ransom to $70,000. Intermediaries met with the kidnappers to negotiate, and they provided articles of the poor baby’s clothing to prove they were for real. Lindbergh paid $50,000 of the ransom. But, the parents never got the child back. People found the baby dead in the woods near the Lindbergh home on 12 May 1932.
“Redeem” or “redemption” means the act of buying back the slave; setting the captive free. These words are two sides of the same coin. Ransom is the price Lindbergh paid, and “redemption” is the rescue Lindbergh hoped to achieve with that ransom. They’re near synonyms―different words with almost the same meanings.
Now, once we get that set in our minds, I want you to think about what these passages mean:
Mark 10:45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Ransom means paying money to a kidnapper―who’s the kidnapper?
1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
Ransom means the price to buy a hostage back from a captor―who’s the captor?
Titus 2:14: … who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Redeem means the act of buying our freedom from a hostile agent―who’s the hostile agent?
1 Peter 1:18: you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
Christ’s death was the price to buy off someone to let you go―who’d the payment go to?
Romans 3:24: … and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
How does God make you righteous? By the redemption, the purchase from slavery, that’s because of Christ Jesus―but purchase from whom?
1 Corinthians 1:30: And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
Jesus is the Wisdom, the Righteousness, the Sanctifier … the Redeemer, the Liberator who bought us back from the slavemaster―who’s the slavemaster?
Ephesians 1:7: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,
Redemption is the great purchase and rescue from bondage―rescue from whom?
Hosea 13:14: I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?
God buys us back from death, who’s kidnapped us. Death is a force that needs to be paid off so it’ll let us go―how does Jesus pay death off for us?
Jeremiah 31:11: For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him
God buys us back from our captor; buys him off and rescues us from hands too strong for us to break―how does this ransom drop happen?
Who’s the Payoff To?
As strange as it might seem at first glance, God paints Christ’s death and resurrection as Jesus ransoming us from Satan. My own translation of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, keeping in mind the real meaning of “ransom,” is this:
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men―the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a payoff for the benefit of all people …”
Why do I say this? Well, a ransom goes to the kidnapper and God isn’t the kidnapper! Satan is the kidnapper. He’s kidnapped unbelievers, he controls them, they naturally “belong” to him―are you still his captive? God made us for Himself in the beginning, but now that’s all reversed. The Apostle Paul says we’re all born as “sons of disobedience” and are “children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3). The Apostle John writes “we are from God, [but] the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” (1 John 5:19). This is why the scripture says when we become believers, we’re rescued (that word is not an accident!) from the “domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14). There’s a transfer of ownership.
So, this “payoff,” this ransom, must go to Satan. It’s what “ransom” means. It’s what “redemption” means. So, it’s what had to have happened. “The Son of Man came … to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). This doesn’t displace “paying for my sins, as my substitute,” but augments it―Christ’s ministry is a diamond with different facets.
But, we wonder, didn’t Satan try to stop Jesus from going to the Cross? There’s the temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11). There’s Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to the Cross. “Get behind me, Satan!” and all that (Mark 8:33). It seems like Satan did try to stop Jesus at first, but he apparently changed his mind.
After the Lazarus miracle, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin decided Jesus had to die, but quietly, discreetly (Jn 11:45-53). Then, on Palm Sunday, we see the uneasiness among Sanhedrin (Jn 12:9-11, 19). Satan sees this and senses opportunity. We know this, because on Wednesday during Holy Week (cf. Mark 14:1), Satan decides to go all in for force:
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them (Lk 22:3-4).
Satan changed his tactics―why?
Why Did Satan Switch Tactics?
The scriptures tell us:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Jesus’ death destroys Satan. Then, Jesus delivers, releases, sets us free. We’re the “goods” and “spoil” that Jesus plunders from Satan’s house, from that analogy from Luke. The resurrection is when He triumphs over Satan. God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ],” (Colossians 2:15).
The resurrection is when Jesus points His finger and laughs at Satan, mocking him. If this were a bad movie (that is, one of those movies that are so bad they’re actually good), we might imagine a scene like this:
SATAN: “No! It can’t be! It can’t … !”
JESUS: “Yep, it’s me! Surprise, sucker!”
But, again, why did Satan accept this “payoff?” Why did he orchestrate it? Isn’t he crafty enough to avoid this mistake? Satan isn’t stupid, so Jesus must have deceived him, and He must have done it by attacking Satan’s great weakness.
How’d he do that? Well, Satan has great pride. He wants to replace God and rule over all. He’s been trying to kill Messiah from the beginning. Revelation 12 gives us a dramatic picture of all that. Then we think about Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. The temptation in the wilderness. He attempts to kill Jesus in His hometown synagogue (Luke 4:29-30). Then the machinations with Judas.
Satan originally tried to tempt Jesus away from the Cross. To divert Him, offer a shortcut. Satan’s afraid of the Cross. But, Satan changes his mind sometime between Lazarus and Palm Sunday. He thinks he can handle the Cross.
So, like a gambler, Satan spins the roulette wheel and puts all his chips on the Cross, figuring He can handle it. Because he has great pride
Why would Satan change his tactics and push events towards an outcome he’s tried to avoid for nearly three years? Jesus must have bluffed Satan―tricked him.
How’d He do it? How did he trick Satan?
The Devil’s Mousetrap―”It’s a Trap!!”
During the last week of Jesus’ life, He declared: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out,” (Jn 12:30-31). It’s as if Jesus said, “By my death this Friday, and my resurrection on Sunday, I’ll defeat Satan and leave him lying broken and beaten on his own front porch!”
The Cross is a deliberate trap―a trojan horse, a subterfuge, a divine false flag operation meant to fool Satan into making a bad bet. Satan thought he’d win―why else would he try it? You think he thought he’d lose, and was just going through the motions? Of course not. Jesus knew He’d win―why do you think He went through with it?
The Cross is actually the greatest double-cross in history. At the end of the last supper, just as they got up from the table to head to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus declared:
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31).
Jesus knows Satan’s got nothing on Him, but goes ahead―and that’s the point! Jesus fooled Satan by cloaking Himself in humanity. “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory,” (1 Corinthians 2:8).
His new and real humanity made Satan “forget” who He is, to underestimate Him, to think He’s weak (cf. Isa 52:13-53:12). Why else would Satan even try the temptations? He knows who Jesus is, but always thinks he can get him, trick him, tempt him, outwit Him.
And so, Jesus made Satan believe he could actually pull this off―and does it from within this broken system. He uses Satan’s own weaknesses against him and defeats him by craft―not by brute force, but by “fair play,” by playing the game from within the sinful system and winning.
Satan has no claim on Jesus. None. Jesus has no sin, so He’s not under any penalty. He’s out of bounds. It’s against the rules for Satan to take Him. Yet, Satan takes Jesus anyway―he kills him. He thinks he can get away with it. He thinks he can handle it.
But, by taking an innocent man against the rules, Satan loses everything he has. His power is broken. He’s ejected the magazine from his own weapon just as Jesus comes walks up the driveway. He’s defenseless!
If you imagine a scene from that same “so bad its good” TV movie, it might look something like this:
Satan (defiant, smirking): “These criminals are mine, and I’m in charge here!”
Jesus: “Yeah, well … you just killed me, and I never sinned, so you actually have no power over me at all. You have no claim on me. You had no right to take my life.”
Satan (licking lips nervously): “What do you mean?”
Jesus: “It means you just fell for it, buddy. I let myself be captured by you. I let myself be killed to pay for everything bad anyone’s ever done. I tricked you into letting me inside your gates, and I’ve broken your power. And now, I’m gonna prove it to everyone by heading back in three days. How do you like them apples?”
And so, to continue the scene, the resurrection is when Jesus punches Satan in the face, beats him down in his own front yard, steps over his body and goes into the house to grab all the folks out of the basement and bring them to safety―do you want to come along? Or, do you want to stay in the bad man’s house?
It isn’t surprising that Jesus paints His victory in violent terms, because “[t]he reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” (1 John 3:8).
Exhortation―Victory in Jesus!
Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a fishhook with Christ as the bait. He dangles there, tantalizing, irresistible. Satan gobbles Him down and is poisoned. He vomits up everything he has. Then he perishes; dead because of his own pride.
Or, you could think of it like a mousetrap. Satan goes for the tasty Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese. The trap snaps, breaking his neck. His power over his slaves is gone. He knows about the trap, knows it’s dangerous, but thought he could beat it. And so he dies like a fool.
Jesus pays the ransom with His life, then takes it right back once He locks away the kidnapper. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again,” (John 10:17-18).
He picks up the ransom bag from beside the mousetrap where Satan dropped it. “Thanks for watching this for me, I’ll take it back now!” Satan’s legs are still spasming as Jesus walks away, bag in hand.
This is the truth. The hook, barb, or poison dart that death uses to sting every one of us is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56)―which is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). We commit divine crimes by breaking God’s law, and sin’s power is that it brings death. It accuses us, “Look what you’ve done! This means death is coming for you pal, ‘cuz it means you belong to me,” (1 Corinthians 15:56) But, as the Apostle Paul says, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
The resurrection is Jesus’ battle cry of victory, and it’s supposed to be ours, too. A victory over evil. A victory over the Accuser. A victory over everything that’s so wrong in this world. Satan ain’t dead yet, but he’s that mouse, choking with a broken neck in that trap. Kicking his legs and fading out. He’s the fish caught on the hook, gasping in the bottom of the boat. Growing weak, dying.
And so, in light of this, Jesus says to you and I, “Come with me if you want to live!” Have you done this? Pledged allegiance to Him? His victory is why we have hope! Come to Jesus and take the victory He’s won for you.
 See also the Didache 1.1: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways,” (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, revised by Michael Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), p. 149).
 Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York: Norton, 2020), p. xvi.
 Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021), pp. 117-118 (esp. fn. 57).
 The word group is λύτρον, ἀντίλυτρον, ἀπολύτρωσις, λυτρόω, λύτρωσις, λυτρωτής.
 Alistair McGrath summed up three implications that go with “ransom” idea from the New Testament scriptures; (1) liberation or rescue, (2) a payment, and (3) someone to whom the ransom is paid (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2001), p. 415).
 “For being free from debt, He gave Himself up to that most cruel creditor, and suffered the hands of the Jews to be the devil’s agents in torturing his spotless flesh. Which flesh he willed to be subject to death, even up to His speedy resurrection, to this end, that believers in Him might find neither persecution intolerable, nor death terrible, by the remembrance that there was no more doubt about their sharing His glory than there was about His sharing their nature,” (Leo the Great, “Sermon 72,” in NPNF 2.7, pp. 184-185). Emphasis mine.
 The genitive in μεσίτης θεοῦ καὶ ἀνθρώπων is a genitive of space.
 Lest anyone think I’m being blasphemous, you’ll see “payoff” as a suggested synonym for the noun “ransom” in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2012), p. 723, and the Oxford definition for the noun “ransom” is in line with the Greek lexicons I’ve cited, above (see New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2011), s.v. “ransom,” n., p. 1445).
 I take the preposition ὑπὲρ to be expressing benefaction.
 I believe the conjunction καὶ expresses contrast (cf. NEB, REB), but the point is made even with a translation of “and.”
 The relevant word here (ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους) means “to rescue from danger,” (Louw-Nida, 21.23; cf. BDAG (907)). I’d render it as “… who rescued us from the power of darkness.”
 This objection is common. Representative examples are James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 328, and Friedrich Büchsel and Otto Procksch: “It is by no means commensurate with Jesus’ powerful concept of God that the many should have to be rescued from bondage to Satan. This concept demands that they be liberated from indebtedness to God,” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), s.v. “Λύτρον,” B.4, p. 344).
R.C.H. Lenski objects that the offering cannot be to Satan, because Jesus said He committed His spirit into the Father’s hands; Lk 23:46 (Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Columbus: Wartburg, 1946), p. 465). However, this citation from Ps 31:5 is simply an expression of absolute trust. As the representative man, Jesus trusts the Father completely. And, Jesus surely knows the whole plan (cf. Jn 10:18). Lenski’s objection does not stand.
 On the fairness and justice of this subterfuge, see Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” ch. 26, in NPNF 2.5 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1893), pp. 495-496.
 Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, in NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” §3.1, in NPNF 2.9 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 45).
 This is likely a deliberately vague reference to both human and demonic “rulers.” David Garland blithely dismisses this understanding at 1 Cor 2:6 based on the phrase’s usage in the NT, and remarks it only refers to Satan when it’s in the singular (1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), pp. 93-94). This is an unpersuasive analysis―the context can suggest either. C.K. Barrett is correct to see spiritual forces (The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 72).
 “He overcomes evil, not by an almighty fiat, but by putting in something of His own, through a Divine self-oblation,” (Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. A.G. Herbert (London: SPCK, 1931; reprint, Crossreach, 2016, Kindle ed.), p. 43.
 “The background of the Latin theory may truly be called legal; but in the Fathers the essential idea which the legal language is intended to express is that God’s dealings even with the powers of evil have the character of ‘fair play,’” (Aulen, Christus Victor, p. 43).
 The Christus Victor model stumbles badly here because it can’t articulate how, exactly, Jesus’ death and resurrection wins victory for His people. It can’t describe the mechanics of this victory. It has no concept of substitution, of satisfaction, of justice. Chrysostom’s attempts to explain fall flat (John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Gospel of St. John,” Jn 12:31, in NPNF 1.14 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 249). This is where the penal substitution model excels. It’s necessary to cross-pollinate the two models. I realize my brief sketch here has some logical holes, but I think it’s faithful to the best aspects of both models.
 This is from Gregory of Nyssa (“Catechism,” ch. 24, NPNF 2.5, p. 494) and John of Damascus (“Orthodox Faith,” §3.27, NPNF 2.9, p. 72).
 Augustine, “Sermon 261.” Excerpt from Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, §5.10, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), pp. 352-353.
 I know I’m channeling Reece from “The Terminator,” but if it works, it works …
The latest question I tackled during theology class with my congregation is “why did a good God allow Adam and Eve to choose sin, when He knew it would lead to so much pain?” This is really a question about the doctrine of providence. Christians have always affirmed that our first parents had a choice to make; a willing, intelligent, volitional choice. But, how does that work, then?
It works by a version of divine providence known as compatibalism or (depending on who you read) as a concursive operation by which God works through primary, secondary, and tertiary means. I wrote the following two articles on this topic a while back. They explain the approach I’ll take here:
“God and the Naughty Assyrians, 22 October 2018.
As I said, the question about Adam and Eve and sin is really a question about providence―what is “providence?” Here it is: God ordering things to turn out like He decided. Thomas Watson has written, “God is not like the artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.” Have you ever considered that, if God is not deliberately steering this world in His own way, then all prophesy is a lie?
Here are the best resources for you to think through this issue (in order of priority):
Discussion from Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity.
1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 5 (esp. the scripture references which accompany the discussion).
1618 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13.
Discussion from Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
There are two basic models floating about in the Christian world:
Divine chess: God is the grandmaster chess player, reacting to our moves, and He’ll always win. He “looks down the corridors of time … seeing the future.” This is popular, but unbiblical―scripture won’t support this view in any way, shape or form. It’s a philosophical construct that often avoids the implications of scripture. God sees the future, but He doesn’t determine or govern it. Does scripture show us God as a psychic who can tell the future, or the God who upholds and controls creation itself?
God rules: He does what He wants, we do what we want, but His will is always done … somehow!
Here’s the basic case, in brief:
God rules and governs as He sees fit,
and so everything which happens is due to Him,
and His decisions are always good, holy, wise and just,
yet people make their own intelligent, willing decisions—we do what we want, when we want,
and God operates in us and through us, and in and through other people and external circumstances,
channeling our true desires (good or bad), their true desires (good or bad), and all circumstances (good or bad) for His purposes,
often without us even being aware of it.
Perhaps the clearest, most beautiful expression of providence is from the 1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13. I’ve mentioned it before. Read what it says:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will,
He is in charge, He governs, and His will shall be done.
so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment;
God doesn’t “look down the corridors of time.” He determines time itself.
nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
The Church has always believed this, and God’s character demands this interpretation. We’ll talk more about this conundrum at a later date. The mental conundrum is due to our shortcoming―our perspective is too small to “get it”
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.
God is at work, even when the devil and wicked men do what they want to do―and we don’t know how that works, except to say that it does work that way.
And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of;
The mystery card is valid, as long as it’s never played too soon. Here, it’s time to play it.
but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us,
We accept His will, even if we don’t understand it. We acknowledge we don’t understand, can’t understand, and may not ever understand.
contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
We don’t have the full story, and we accept that.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation,
All this isn’t frightening, but comforting―why?
since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father,
He watches over us, cares about us, loves us, and no matter what happens, it isn’t a situation out of His control. The alternative is chaos. Little children who see their parents terrified become terrified themselves. God is never terrified, or caught off guard by events. He controls events. He determines events.
who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust;
Will we trust, or will go beyond what He’s revealed?
being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
God commands Satan, who can only touch us if God allows it. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” (1 Cor 10:13).
Here are some (not all) controlling passages to “see” this version of providence from the scriptures. If you look them up, consider how our free decisions interplay with God’s decisions.
Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
Jeremiah 25:8-11 (cf. 25:12-14); 27:1-11.
Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; 12:13-25; 42:11 (“all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him”).
Here’s a short video of me presenting this during class:
I updated this article on 12 April 2021. This paper is not an exhaustive discussion, but rather a brief survey of the primary texts with some brief “pulling the threads together” analysis.
Periodically, throughout the years, I’ve re-visited the “when can Christians legitimately divorce” issue. First time was before seminary, when someone asked me if she had biblical grounds to leave a spouse who beat her. Second time was at seminary, where that particular sub-culture taught the “only for adultery and desertion” approach. Third, fourth and fifth times have been over the past decade-ish, since I’ve been a pastor.
Well, I come before you to declare I’ve figured everything out …
This is a hard topic. I’ve had to think through this issue again, and so I present my conclusions here to you. I may be wrong, of course. Some will undoubtedly disagree with me. This is not an exhaustive discussion, but a brief positive survey of the most primary texts. I don’t interact with opposing viewpoints; you can find whole books that will do that for you. In this post, I just provide a brief positive statement of my position. Perhaps it will change one day. You may find my complete paper here.
The bottom line
The bottom line is a Christian may divorce under the following scenarios, each of which is an egregious fracture of the marriage covenant:
Sexual betrayal: physical adultery or an egregious, repeated and seemingly (to a reasonable person) unrepentant breach of sexual allegiance more generally (Deut 24:1; Mt 5:32, 19:9)
Neglect: refusal to provide food or clothing ≈ material neglect (Ex 21:10-11; cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please wife/husband”)
Desertion: an implication from the previous, whether carried out by a believer (1 Cor 7:10-12, and principle also logically follows from Ex 21:10-11 (cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please his wife”)), or an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:15).
Physical abuse: an implication from the previous
Failure to provide marital privileges: refusal to provide “marital rights” ≈ the expected matrix of sexual relations, affection, and expressions of love (“love” is a decision, not a feeling). Analysis should be totality of circumstances, not a legalistic weighing of scales
My Interpretive Presuppositions
These are my broader interpretive presuppositions about the texts herein. They help you understand where I’m coming from, up front:
Exodus 21:10-11 provides a general principle about divorce that transcends covenants and the immediate context in Exodus 21.
Genesis 1-2 is the controlling passage for Jesus that expresses God’s idealistic heart for the covenant of marriage. It therefore must be our heart, too.
Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 are both excerpts from larger teaching that God did not see fit to provide for us. They stand alone, without context, as disparate pieces of collected teachings. Therefore, their interpretation should be controlled by the larger context of Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
Jesus’ statements in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 are explicit responses to the pro “any cause divorce” interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and we must interpret them in that light. They are not blanket statements covering all circumstances; they are simply Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ intent behind the exemption at Deuteronomy 24. “[T]he Gospels record the whole debate as if it was concerned solely with divorces in Deuteronomy 24:1.”
At 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is responding to a misguided craze for sexual asceticism, and we must interpret his comments on divorce and remarriage there with that context in mind.
Some Overarching Principles to Consider
A pastor (and a congregation) must remember these things:
You’re a Counselor, not God
The pastor’s role is to advise the Christian and guide him to make the best decision in light of the matrix of biblical truth. A pastor can only advise based on his observations and the best data he can gather. He may be wrong because the parties provided skewed data. Everybody is responsible to the Lord for their own decisions.
Sometimes You Gotta Face Reality
Sometimes there has been so much baggage, so much hurt, so much water under the bridge, that one or both parties just will not put forth the effort to repair the damage biblically. Stanley Grenz writes, “it must be admitted that divorce is at times but the formal declaration of the actual state of affairs.” He explains “… divorce is not an abrupt termination of a marriage. Rather, it is but the final statement concerning the process whereby the marital bond has been violated for some time.”
Better Peace Than Forced Misery
See Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 7:15; and the previous heading, above.
Sometimes, human failure and sin in the marriage will cause great suffering. “At this stage, the principle of God’s compassionate concern for the person’s involved, God’s intent to establish shalom or human wholeness, must take precedence over the concern to maintain the inviolability of marriage.”
This peace includes an honest assessment about whether they can continue to live together as husband and wife. “Peace by necessity includes a peaceful parting and a resolution of lingering responsibilities of their marriage, including a division of material goods and a just arrangement for providing for the children. Finally, interpersonal peace must work toward a normalization of their relationship as two separate persons, including the cessation of whatever hostilities the marriage breakup may have engendered.”
In short, when faced with hardened hearts that will not put forth the effort to fix the issues, coupled with the ongoing pain and hurt caused by the compounding baggage, it may be best to just “call it” and acknowledge the marriage has been over for quite some time―no matter that the legal veneer is still in place. Formalize what the de facto reality already is and will continue to be. This is not a “get out of jail free” card, but a call to carefully examine the realities of the situation while balancing all the biblical teaching―especially the command to “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18).
Put the Blame Where it Belongs
“A marriage is ended by the person who breaks the marriage vows, not by the wronged person who decides to end the broken contract by enacting a divorce.”
Yet, There’s Likely Plenty of Blame to go Around
“Legalistic approaches, therefore, run the danger of viewing complex marital problems too simplistically. A legalistic structure seeks to force the situation into categories of ‘guilty partner’ versus ‘innocent partner’ which simply may not fit the case at hand. The determination of ‘innocent partner’ in many cases of marital breakup is difficult, if not impossible. It may well be that both parties share in the guilt.”
Divorce is not the Unpardonable Sin
This shouldn’t have to be said, but it must be said.
Divorce is not God’s Intention for Marriage
This also shouldn’t have to be said. It isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card. Jesus’ burden was to uphold God’s intent for marriage from Genesis.
Besides the scriptures themselves, the two most helpful resources for me were:
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), and
Andrew Naselli, “What the NT Teaches about Divorce and Remarriage,” in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019), pp. 3-44.
 “There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any ancient Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God: these principles were unanimously agreed on. Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time,” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church [Downers Grove: IVP, 2003], p. 96).
 “Only the Lord really knows the heart; as Jesus said, evil comes from within and loves the dark. We cannot leave it up to a minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance, and only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision,” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce, pp. 104-105).
 Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville: WJK, 1990), pp. 133, 126.
There is no doubt that biblical Christianity is under attack as it never has been before not only in this country but around the world. The mentality with which we face the battle is revealing the underlying weaknesses of our respective movements.
The first sentence is absurd, historically. The second is perceptive, but likely not in the way the author intended. The great tragedy of the corpse that fundamentalism has become is that its only distinctive contribution to the broader evangelical conversation is sectarianism. This negative ethos has diminishing returns, which is why Baptist fundamentalism is a corpse as a movement, even as its ethos (rightly understood; see this article) is a pearl of great price:
First-stage fundamentalism was built on advocating for a broad biblical orthodoxy in the face of apostasy. It’s heirs are the conservative evangelicals. It’s why the people who still do this today are evangelicals.
Second-stage fundamentalism is what we typically mean when we use the term, and its ethos is on separation from conservatives who aren’t conservative enough. That is why second-stage fundamentalism is a cut-flower movement that’s dying in the vase on the countertop. It has no real distinctive, positive presentation other than separation. Ask a self-described fundamentalist why he’s not an evangelical and he’ll say “separation.” There is your proof.
Thus I say that, properly understood, fundamentalists should be conservative evangelicals.
Fundamentalism as a movement has mission drift. It has forgotten its purpose. Long ago, its original ethos of “that isn’t Christianity, this is Christianity, and let me tell you the real story of Jesus and His love!” largely degenerated to “those Christians are compromisers, so stay away from them and be pure, like us!”
It all doesn’t have to be this way, but it is, and so it’s all very sad.
So it is with our article and the organization from whence it came. Even as he tries to urge introspection, our author can’t help but rehash the old story of lost battles from last century. The frame of reference is stuck in neutral; in a sepia tone from the Truman/Eisenhower era. Fundamentalism’s own proponents are often incapable of framing their movement without reference to evangelicalism; that wealthier and successful cousin of whom they’re always jealous. This chip on the shoulder is ever-present, stalking the movement’s hopes, fears, and dreams—shaping its very essence. The mindset is akin to the “lost cause” myth of the South, complete with its own stable of heroes, villains, and the call to interpret defeat as honor in the context of a perpetual martyrdom.
Fundamentalism, as a movement, is that church that spends its time pining for the good old days, looking back with proud smiles at yellowing scrapbooks. It has no positive presentation. Even as it tries to muster the strength for forward motion, it’s all framed with reference to the past. And, as with that stereotypical dying church, you try to be polite and say the right things, but it’s all really a bit sad.
It didn’t (and doesn’t) have to be this way, which makes it sadder still.
We have a bi-monthly theology class with interested folks from my congregation. Right now, we’re considering the doctrine of sin. This might seem dry as dust, but it’s not. If you read the notes, below, perhaps you’ll see why. I’ve included short-ish excerpts from the teaching session if you want the Cliff Notes version in the meantime!
Kind of a big deal …
This question “what is sin” answers one of the “big questions” of life. Everybody has these big questions, and they’re usually variations on these five:
Origins: How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we as human beings? How can we be sure we know anything about reality at all? What’s the purpose of life? Is there a Creator and Sustainer, or is life just random chance and accident?
Suffering: What’s wrong with the world and with us? What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other? What happens when we die? Why do we die?
Hope: Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
Rescue: How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
The End: How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?
So, this isn’t an academic consideration—it shapes and defines how we understand the world, ourselves and God in many ways:
God: If sin isn’t so serious, then we’ll tend to think of God as the smiling, perhaps senile grandfather. He’s indulgent. He forgives. He forgets. But, if sin is indeed quite serious, then we’re more likely to see God as pure, righteous, and holy.
Ourselves: If sin is a matter of grading on a curve, then “goodness” is about how we compare ourselves to each other. We aren’t so bad, after all! None of us is Ted Bundy! But, if there is no curve, but a moral standard set by God, then we’re supposed to reflect God’s image and are held to His standard. This means we’re all in serious trouble.
Salvation: What we think about sin shapes how much “trouble” we’re in. If we’re basically good, then we don’t need much supernatural intervention. Maybe just a push, now and then. But, if we’re criminals without hope, then we do need a divine intervention!
The Church: What we think about sin shapes what we think the Church is here to do. If we’re basically “good people” in our natural state, then the Church exists to be positive, to be caring, to show love via mercy ministries (e.g. In His Steps). But, if we do need that divine intervention, then the Church is here to show and tell the Gospel and bridge-build towards the Gospel as we interact with our communities.
Society: What we think about sin shapes how we understand politics, and our society. If we’re basically good, then we solve problems in our world by fixing unwholesome environments. If we need a divine intervention, then we see that nothing will really be solved until people’s hearts are changed by the Gospel. The ultimate hope is then in Jesus’ second coming and His establishment of the new community.
What is sin?
I’ll start with a brief survey of how some folks in the Church have answered that question.
The text we’re using for theology class, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, offers this: “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” This is a standard definition, no doubt derived from the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith. Notice that Grudem captures three categories; actions, thoughts, and nature.
Here’s the Belgic Confession, Art. 15:
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them. Not that they should rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.”
Note the emphasis on sin as a status, an infection that has spread to all people.
Here is the Church of England’s 39 Articles, Art. 9:
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Now, we turn to the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Art. 6, which explains sin is a “corruption of nature” (6.5):
By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation (6.2-3).
Finally, we have the Lutherans in the Augsburg Confession (1630), Art. 2:
… since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin [that is, there is actual individual guilt] and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”
Sin is actually three different things at the same time, like layers of the same onion. We’ll go from the most obvious example of sin to its most fundamental essence:
Sin as lawlessness
Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4)—failing to follow God’s laws. It means breaking God’s law by what you do or don’t do; e.g. “thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) and “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas 2:8-9). It also means breaking God’s law by what you think; Mt 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Sin as a controlling disease
But, as the survey of various confessions makes clear, sin is also a disease that owns, controls, and shapes people—“it infects our personal ‘control center’” and produces “guilt and pollution.” One excellent controlling passage is Romans 6:1 – 7:6, which you can read through and note at your leisure.
This means that, as a hereditary disease, sin controls us. We’re its slaves, and it corrupts all our affections. It’s a “total act” that involves all of our beings, because it springs from the heart (Prov 4:23; Mt 12:33-37). “The heart of man is evil … It is the Headquarters of the General Staff, not the office of some lesser official … the whole man rebels against God, ego totus, and in this rebellion all the individual powers of his body-mind economy are mobilized.”
It’s shape comes from our environmental and social nexus and is always evolving, mutating, expanding, shape-shifting—it can be “baked in” even to the level of the structural fabrics of our society (e.g. racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious hatred, ecological pollution, genocide).
Indeed, experience shows is daily how evil ‘infects’ society, spreading from one person to another, and perhaps involving them in it against their will. The power of the ‘infection’ is as great in the moral sphere as it is in physical epidemics. We ought to be aware of the fact—and remind others of it—that evil spreads to institutions and conditions, ‘infects’ them, and then breeds further evil, which, in turn, ‘re-infects’ the lives of human beings as individuals. Further, it is evident that the evil which is incorporated in asocial institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms, which, as a rule, are not found in any individual evil. Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated in institutions, or as a mass phenomenon, is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”
All this is why we must be “born again” (Jn 3:5-7), because we need a new mind and new heart (cf. Ezek 36:25-26)—the Spirit must “wash” us clean (Titus 3:5) and “cleanse” us from this disease. Union with Christ (pictured by the object lesson of believer’s baptism) breaks that metaphysical slavery and sets us free.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Sin as cheating on God and rejecting His community
Largely following Stanley Grenz, with an assist from Emil Brunner and Millard Erickson, I believe the most basic essence of sin is infidelity to God and His plan for community. Other suggestions are (1) rebellion and apostasy, (2) selfishness, (3) a privation or absence of goodness, or (4) displacement of God. These are good options. Still, infidelity and rejection of community seem to strike at the heart of “sin.”
God made us to be in community with Him and each other. By sinning, our first parents rejected His community (just as Satan had done), and so God had to expel them from Paradise (“he drove out the man,” Gen 3:24).
The bible’s story is God choosing and rescuing a community for His kingdom—we’ll only have peace and purpose in our lives when that relationship is fixed by pledging allegiance to Jesus. Sin is the great “problem” that stands in the way; lawlessness caused by a controlling force that has ruined our hearts and minds.
This isn’t an impersonal, legal crime, but a personal attack and rejection—infidelity, adultery (cf. Hosea 1-3), a hurtful treachery (Hos 6:7; Isa 48:8; Jer 3:1-2, 8-10, 20, 5:11; Ezek 16:15f). There’s a reason why God so often frame this treachery as “adultery.” It’s the ultimate betrayal, the most personal and hurtful betrayal imaginable. It’s why God chose to use it when He expressed His anger.
So, “sin” is fundamentally about saying “no” to God’s community; “cheating on Him” and thus destroying our relationship with Him (fear of Him; Gen 3:10), with each other (Gen 3:7, 16), and with the natural environment God gave us (Gen 3:17-19)—the world God gave us is no longer our friend.
For fun, I’ll also throw in a video of the free-ranging discussion we began during our last class on the question “why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin? This is one of the trickiest questions of the Christian faith. It all comes down to providence, and HOW God controls this world. In this video, the other pastor in my congregation lays out some options, we look at scripture, and then have a free-ranging discussion about the topic. If you want to know the answer to this question, read Article 13 from the 1619 Belgic Confession of Faith:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
Here is our free-flowing discussion on the topic. Next time, we’ll narrow things down and see what the Church has taught and believed about this difficult subject.
 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.
 I am following Grenz’s excellent work, here (Theology, pp. 187-188).
 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 90-93. For rebellion alone, see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 6 (Waco: Word, 1984), pp. 246f.
 Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 246-247. “… all the forms of sin can be traced to selfishness as their source.”
 John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith 2.4, in NPNF 2.9. “For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light,” (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 20. See also Augustine, where he explains trying to discern the cause of evil is like trying to “see darkness” or “hear silence.” We don’t know it by perception, “but by absence of perception,” (City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [reprint; New York: Penguin, 2003], 12.7, p. 480.
 Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.4; “hence infidelity was the root of the revolt.”
 “The sinful destruction of community has been the human predicament from the beginning. The transgression of our first parents led to the unmistakable disruption of community. Their act brought alienation or estrangement where once had been only fellowship. The innocent transparency in the presence of each other they had once known gave way to shame (Gen 3:7). In addition, Adam and Eve now feared the face of God who had lovingly created them (v. 10). And they now experience the bitter reality that the world around them was no longer their friend (vv. 15, 17, 19),” (Grenz, Theology, p. 188).