On original sin

On original sin

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:

  1. Is original sin a “thing” to be transmitted (a la a virus), or a status?
  2. How does it “get” from our first parents to us?
  3. Are we guilty because of our first parent’s sin, or our own?
  4. Are we born guilty, or are we in some sort of probationary state?
  5. 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:

Summary

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.[1]

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.[2] Thus, “original sin does not have the character of a personal fault … it is a deprivation of original holiness and justice …”[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.[6]

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;[7] but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state;[8] in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners,[9] not by constraint, but choice;[10] 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,[11] without defense or excuse.[12]

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,[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.

Scripture

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.

Romans 5:12-20

12: Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ διʼ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφʼ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον

My translation is thus:

  • Therefore,
    • just as lawlessness entered into the world by way of[16] one man,
      • and death by way of[17] lawlessness,
    • so[18] this is how[19] death passed through to all people―
      • because of Adam’s headship[20] everyone “committed lawlessness.”

Paul says sin entered the world by means of one man. The thought is that:

  1. Adam brought lawlessness,
  2. and lawlessness brought death,
  3. 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:

  1. sin entered by means of one man (a historical event, in the past),
  2. and so death passed to all men (a historical event, in the past),
  3. 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.[21]

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.

18: Ἄρα οὖν ὡς διʼ ἑνὸς παραπτώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς κατάκριμα οὕτως καὶ διʼ ἑνὸς δικαιώματος εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς 

My rendering is this:

  • Therefore, then,
    • just as by means of[22] one trespass
      • we have a guilty verdict[23] against[24] all people,
  • so too,
    • by way of[25] [Christ’s] one righteous act
      • we have acquittal (that is, life!)[26] 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.

19: ὥσπερ γὰρ διὰ τῆς παρακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἁμαρτωλοὶ κατεστάθησαν οἱ πολλοί οὕτως καὶ διὰ τῆς ὑπακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί

My translation is:

  • Because, just as
    • through one man’s disobedience
      • many people became lawbreakers,
  • so
    • through the other man’s obedience
      • many people will be made righteous

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.

1 Corinthians 15:21-22

ἐπειδὴ γὰρ διʼ ἀνθρώπου θάνατος καὶ διʼ ἀνθρώπου ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν τῷ Ἀδὰμ πάντες ἀποθνῄσκουσιν οὕτως καὶ ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ πάντες ζῳοποιηθήσονται.

My translation is thus:

  • Because,
    • since death [came] through[27] man,
    • resurrection from the dead has also come through man.
  • This means that,[28]
    • just as in association with[29] 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.

Theologian Survey

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.

Emil Brunner

Unfortunately, at least two theologians seriously misunderstand Brunner or cite him without actually reading him.[30] “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.[31]

The very idea of inherited sin makes “sin” a biological, natural fact―“[b]ut this is never the view of the Bible.”[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[35]

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 …”[36] 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.”[37]

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.”[38]

Robert Letham

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.”[39] He sees a problem with imputing guilt to people before they commit a volitional act; it “is inherently unjust.”[40] So, “it seems clear that both the forensic and the natural relationships are mutually necessary.”[41]

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.[42]

[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.[43]

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.”[44]

  • Ignorance: “On account of pride the mind was darkened through ignorance …”[45]
  • 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.”[46]

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.”[47]

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

Original sin is the privation of original justice and the inordinate disposition of the soul[48] and the nature.[49] In its essence, then, original sin is:

  1. privation of original justice in formal terms, and
  2. concupiscence (that is, inordinate lusts in general; “turning inordinately to mutable good”) in material terms[50]

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.[51] 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 …[52]

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.”[53] Thus “the child pre-exists in its father as the active principle, and in its mother, as in its material and passive principle.”[54]

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.[55]

“[G]uilt is not actually in the semen, yet human nature is there virtually, accompanied by that guilt.”[56]

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.”[57] 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 …”[58]

Wayne Grudem

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 …”[59]. 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 …”[60]

His treatment of children dying in infancy is outstanding,[61] and far superior to Erickson’s view.

Millard Erickson

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.”[62]

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.[63]


[1] 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.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §404. 

[3] Catechism, §405.  

[4] “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).

[5] 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.

[6] Retrieved from https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#iii-man.

[7] Gen. 1:27; 1:31; Eccles. 7:29; Acts 16:26; Gen. 2:16.

[8] Gen. 3:6–24; Rom. 5:12.

[9] Rom. 5:19; John 3:6; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 5:15–19; 8:7.

[10] Isa. 53:6; Gen. 6:12; Rom. 3:9–18.

[11] Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 1:18; 1:32; 2:1–16; Gal. 3:10; Matt. 20:15.

[12] Ezek. 18:19, 20; Rom. 1:20; 3:19; Gal. 3:22.

[13] Gen. 1:27, 28; 2:16, 17; Acts 17:26; Rom. 5:12, 15–19; 1 Cor. 15:21, 22, 45, 49.

[14] Psa. 51:5; Gen. 5:3; Job 14:4; 15:14.

[15] Even the Heidelberg Catechism, Q7, does not clarify the issue. We must rely on the Belgic Confession’s wording, here.

[16] The preposition is expressing means. It cannot be reason, because it pairs with an accusative in that instance. 

[17] Means. 

[18] The conjunction expresses the logical conclusion of Paul’s argument. 

[19] An adverb of manner, explaining how something happened. 

[20] 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).

[21] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 580.

[22] Means.

[23] This is my rendering, instead of the usual gloss of “condemnation.”

[24] Opposition. 

[25] Means. 

[26] A genitive of apposition. 

[27] Means. 

[28] This is a stylistic alternative to another bland “because.” 

[29] The preposition expresses association, also in the parallel clause.

[30] 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).

[31] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 97.

[32] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104.

[33] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 102. 

[34] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 103. 

[35] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104. 

[36] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 104. 

[37] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 106. 

[38] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, p. 106.  

[39] Letham, Systematic, p. 380. 

[40] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[41] Letham, Systematic, p. 396. 

[42] Augustine, City of God §13.3, in Penguin Classics, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 512. 

[43] Augustine, City of God §13.3, p. 513. 

[44] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.28.  

[45] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.31.  

[46] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.31.  

[47] Hugh of Saint Victor, Sacraments, §1.7.35.

[48] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 1, ad. 1.         

[49] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 1, ad. 2.  

[50] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 82, Art. 3, corpus.  

[51] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, corpus.  

[52] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, corpus.

[53] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 5, corpus.

[54] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 5, ad. 1.

[55] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, ad. 2.

[56] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q. 81, Art. 1, ad. 3.

[57] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §404. 

[58] Catechism, §405.  

[59] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[60] Grudem, Systematic, p. 495. 

[61] Grudem, Systematic, pp. 499-501. 

[62] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 580. 

[63] Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 582-583. 

What is sin? And other easy questions …

What is sin? And other easy questions …

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.[1] Everybody has these big questions, and they’re usually variations on these five:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?”
  4. Rescue: How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
  5. 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:[2]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”[3] 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:[4]

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.”[5]

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’”[6] and produces “guilt and pollution.”[7] 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.”[8]

It’s shape comes from our environmental and social nexus[9] 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).[10]

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.”[11]

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.

Romans 6:4-5

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.[12] Other suggestions are (1) rebellion and apostasy,[13] (2) selfishness,[14] (3) a privation or absence of goodness,[15] or (4) displacement of God.[16] 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,[17] 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.[18]

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.


[1] For good introductions to the concept of “worldview,” see Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992)and James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 6th ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020).

[2] Erickson, Christian Theology, pp. 515. 

[3] Grudem, Systematic, p. 490. 

[4] Retrieved from https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/articles-religion#IX

[5] Theodore Tappert (trans. and ed.), “Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), p. 29. I am quoting from the German translation, not the Latin.  

[6] Grenz, Theology, p. 185. 

[7] Hodge, Systematic, 2:188. 

[8] Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 94-95.  

[9] Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), p. 41.

[10] Bloesch, Jesus Christ, p. 45. 

[11] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.  

[12] I am following Grenz’s excellent work, here (Theology, pp. 187-188).

[13] 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.

[14] 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.”

[15] 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.

[16] Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 530.  

[17] Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.4; “hence infidelity was the root of the revolt.”

[18] “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).

Killing You Softly? Unrepentant Sin as a Congregational Virus

Many Christians think their sins are a personal matter, a private affair – something that doesn’t have anything to do with their local church. This is how many of us think. We consider our private sins to be, well . . . private. Nobody’s business but ours. It certainly isn’t our congregation’s business. Our personal lives have nothing to do with our local church, right?

I don’t believe so. I’d like to re-think this, and I’m going to use what many people would consider to be an unusual source – the Book of Deuteronomy. This book has a lot to say on this matter of unrepentant and deliberate sin as community and covenant pollution. Here is my conclusion, after reading through the book again recently:

  1. If you’re a Christian
  2. and you’re in unrepentant sin
  3. and you don’t care, and have no desire to change your ways
  4. you’re polluting your entire congregation
  5. and you’re defiling your entire church

Let’s take a careful look at what the Book of Deuteronomy has to say, then build a bridge or two to our own context.

Sin contaminates the community

Moses believed that sin contaminated the congregation. It pollutes God’s people. It must be dealt with and eradicated. It must be purged from their midst. In modern terms, it’s a virus. Here is some of the data:

Deuteronomy 13:5

Moses explained what to do about false prophets. The Bible is quite clear. If a man claims to be a prophet, and he performs signs and wonders and makes predictions which come to pass, then entices you to abandon the faith and follow him to serve and worship another god – that man is a false prophet. Moses explained God would allow these people to spring forth, like pestilential weeds, in order to test His people.

Here is what Moses commanded God’s people to do with these men:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 13:5).

The man has to be executed, because his actions have infected the congregation. They’re ordered to “purge the evil” from their midst. That’s strong language. What would happen to Christians if they didn’t just consider the impact of their sin on their own life and circumstances, but also considered how it impacts their church?

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

In this passage, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how they should treat apostates; professing believers who have purposely “transgressed the covenant,” and have “gone and served other gods and worshiped them,” (Deut 17:3). Here is what he said:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 17:6-7).

Pay particular attention to the last phrase – by executing this apostate, the Israelites will “purge the evil” from their midst. Sin is a pollutant, a contamination; a pestilence that impacts everybody in the covenant community. We often don’t think of sin this way. We see it as an individual event, a personal defiling, a private affair. Moses (and God!) see it as something that puts a blot on the entire covenant community.

There is more.

Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Moses went on and explained how legal disputes should be settled among the Old Covenant Israelites. Criminal and civil offenses were adjudicated by the Levitical priests and “the judge who is in office in those days.” Together, they heard the matter and rendered a verdict. What happens if a man decides he doesn’t like the verdict? Is there an appeal process? Can he ignore the verdict?

No, he cannot. Read on:

The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again (Deut 17:12-13).

A man who defies the judges and ignores the verdict has spit in God’s face. He’s ignored the God-ordained people and means God put in place to take care of these matters. This term “acts presumptuously” signifies a special kind of contempt and scorn for authority. It’s a defiant, spiteful kind of rebellion (cf. Numbers 15:30ff). This kind of person hates God’s law (Numbers 15:31). Do you remember the account of the man who deliberately ignored the law and decided to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? It’s the same attitude.

In this case, Moses decreed the man who defies and ignores the verdict must die. They “shall purge the evil from Israel.” Again, this unrepentant, deliberate sin is a cancer that must be cut out, lest it destroy the entire congregation. Moses says this man’s actions impacted the entire nation.

Think about our churches; how do our individual unrepentant sins impact our congregation as a corporate body? Think about your local church, where you join together with other New Covenant brothers and sisters to worship God. Your unrepentant sin pollutes the congregation, soils the entire assembly, and defiles the entire church. Will you commit to fixing this, for their sake and yours?

Deuteronomy 19:11-13

Murder is bad news. Moses knew how wicked people were, and after explaining the purpose of the “cities of refuge,” he hastened to qualify what he meant. These cities were for people who accidently committed acts of negligence that resulted in a person dying; “if any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past . . .” (Deut 19:4).

Moses provided an example about one man killing another with an ax that slipped from his grasp. This is clearly not premeditated. A man could flee to this city to have the matter adjudicated, and the victim’s kin could not pursue him there and kill him. “The man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past,” (Deut 19:6).

Of course, some people would try and abuse this caveat. Not so fast, Moses warned:

But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you (Deut 19:11-13)

The murderer must be executed, because he has brought “the guilt of innocent blood” upon the entire nation. Again, you can’t read this without being struck by how one person’s transgression pollutes the entire community. If this man is not killed, then the entire nation remains guilty, and is defiled by this injustice.

Deuteronomy 19:15-19

False witnesses are bad. God doesn’t like liars. He especially doesn’t like liars who swear falsely, and provide false, formal testimony with an aim to wrongly condemn an innocent man:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

This man has polluted the congregation and the community. He must be punished because it’s the just thing to do. If his false testimony had been accepted, an innocent man would have been punished unjustly. So, to right this wrong, the false accuser will suffer the fate the innocent man would have suffered.

There are other passages, and they make similar points (see chart, below)

What sins are we talking about?

What sins are “bad enough” that they have this impact on the Old Covenant community? This chart summarizes the offenses from the Book of Deuteronomy that required “purging” of evil or guilt:[1]

table 1

You could summarize and place these sins under a few headings:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Civil disobedience (legal and family contexts)
  3. Severe moral failure

For clarity, I’ve re-framed these headings both negatively and positively:

table 2

This data could change when you factor in Exodus 20 and onward, Leviticus and Numbers, but it’s interesting enough already. These three headings are large, umbrella categories that encapsulate a great deal of “the Christian life.” They explain man’s duty to worship God, obey God-ordained authority structures that are the bedrock of a stable, sane and orderly society, and include perhaps the two most notorious moral failings among human beings.

If a covenant member refuses to love, worship and honor God by loving obedience to His law, then that man has “cut himself off” from God’s people and from God’s family. Likewise, if there is no order to society; if formal verdicts rendered by priests and ordained judges cannot stand, and courtroom proceedings become a kangaroo court of lies and trumped up charges, then all hope of an orderly, stable and civilized society has been lost.

But, what about the moral failures? Why, of all the offenses God could have chosen, did He choose sexual intercourse and murder?[2] I suppose it is because they are the most heinous offenses a man can commit.

Murder is the great and terrible sin; the snuffing out of a God-given life on purpose. This kind of action betrays a disdain for sanctity of human life. The Bible teaches us that we are not animals, nor are we descended from them. We are unique, made in God’s image, which means we dimly reflect some of his characteristics and attributes. Human life is sacred.

Sexual deviance is the great failing of men and women. Our bodies are not our own, and God has always cared about how we act and what we do with them. In the New Covenant, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and (by extension) the Son and the Father, too. Our bodies are therefore temples of God; He resides within us. In the Old Covenant, this is an implicit teaching, as well.[3] Even in the famous passage from the law, believers are command to love God with all their heart, soul and might – in short, with their entire being. Our bodies are a part of who we are; it isn’t an amalgamation of bone and flesh. We aren’t gnostics who believe the physical realm has no moral meaning. What we do with our bodies is an extension of our thoughts and desires (i.e. mind and heart).

Sexual purity is a major focus of God’s law. Those apostates today who advocate for unrepentant “Christian” homosexuality and perverted transgender constructs of self-identity are stunningly ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps, as Brent Strawn has noted, it’s because they can’t speak the “language” of a full canon in the first place.[4]

In general terms, God’s word calls all true believers to:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities, and
  3. live holy lives

These are core, general principles that transcend the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant (or, more commonly and erroneously “law vs. grace”) dichotomy. They’re basic and fundamental. These categories encompass the very sins which Moses says defile the congregation, pollute the entire nation, and must be purged from among the Israelites.

What about today?

What does all this have to do with you, today? It’s 2017. You own a smartphone, have wireless internet, and probably binge-watch television shows on your tablet when the weekend comes. What hath Sinai to do with Seattle?

More than you think.

True, there are some major differences in context:

  • The two-tiered Old Covenant has been replaced by the single-tiered New Covenant. Only true believers are part of God’s covenant people now.
  • The Israelite theocracy has been abolished, and Jesus has been crowned as King in heaven, and is waiting to return and establish His rule. Christians now are slaves and subjects waiting for their King.
  • The legal system and its judges are secular and cannot be counted on to care about God’s laws, or reverence them. Therefore, God’s civil laws have been abolished, but the basic principles can often apply today – whether the secular judge applying them realizes it or not!
  • The ceremonial laws have been abolished, because all New Covenant believers have been made permanently clean before the Lord by what Christ has done.
  • The sacrificial laws have been abolished, because Christ’s one, perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice has made fulfilled those parables.

But, the basics are still the same. We are God’s covenant people. God has not changed. Jesus has now come and gone, and will return again. We have new revelation to augment the old.

And, those three basic principles about the “Christian life” still hold true:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities (see, for example, 1 Pet 2:13-15), and
  3. live holy lives

Moreover, those three headings about the “contaminating sins” from the Book of Deuteronomy are still perfectly applicable today:

table 2

What does this mean for you? It means that today, under the New Covenant, the unrepentant sins committed by the regenerate individuals who are members of local churches defile, pollute and contaminate the entire congregation. Your unrepentant sin pollutes your entire church.

How do I know this? How do I know this basic principle of unrepentant sin as community pollution carries weight in the New Covenant, in local churches? Because the Apostle Paul said so.

Paul to the Corinthians

He wrote the Corinthian congregation and rebuked them for tolerating unrepentant incest in their midst. He warned them, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).

His point is clear enough – this one man and his blatant, proud and unrepentant sin has defiled the congregation. Just as a little yeast will have an outsized impact on a loaf of bread as it bakes, so this wicked man and his sin will pollute and destroy the congregation. This is why Paul went on and commanded the church to, “cleanse out the old leaven,” (1 Cor 5:7). He continued:

But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Paul finished by quoting from Deuteronomy 17:7.[5] He believed this principle, and lived by it. He commanded this man to be purged, driven out, expelled and kicked to the curb. This man was disgracing the Lord’s name in the community. This sin was so unrepentant, deliberate and blatant that Paul has heard tell of it (“it is actually reported that . . .”). Think of how primitive communications were in his day, and realize that, despite the absence of Twitter, Facebook or text messages, the apostle Paul had heard rumors of this wickedness from afar. If he had heard of it, what do you think the local community had heard!?

Because this professing Christian was unrepentant, he had to be purged and driven out from the body. It was for the good of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, it was for the Lord’s sake that he be expelled.

So what? A plea for holiness

God commands His people to love Him with everything they have (Deut 6:4). Jesus said this was the greatest and most important commandment. If we love God, then we’ll want to do what He says.

His word says we need to be continually confessing and forsaking our sins. We need to be purging ourselves of evil habits, and replacing them with Godly habits. Our unrepentant sins aren’t a private matter – they’re a public matter. It impacts our churches. It’s a community affair.

For your congregation’s sake, for your sake, and for God’s sake – remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9). This is not a one-time event, but a lifelong habit. We try our best to honor and glorify God by the way we live our lives, because He’s redeemed us, and we love Him. As we fall short, we thank God that Jesus has already redeemed us from all unrighteousness, we honestly confess our sins, determine to forsake them again, and keep on going.

We purify ourselves, day by day, seeking to be more and more like Christ, our Savior (1 Jn 3:5). Don’t pollute yourself. Don’t pollute your congregation. Don’t let the virus of unrepentant and unconfessed sin destroy you spiritually.

You have the antidote. Use it.

Notes

[1] On Deut 22:23-24, I believe the assumption in the text is that it is consensual intercourse. The Bible tells us, “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” (Deut 22:23-24).

The man did not “seize her” (which is the term used to describe rape in the very next verse; Deut 22:25ff), he “meets her.” This implies some kind of consensual rendezvous. Moreover, she could have called out for help, but she did not. This also indicates their action was consensual.

Some commentators disagree, and believe this incident in Deut 22:23-24 is sexual assault; see, for example, Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in NAC, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 304. I don’t find his arguments convincing.

[2] It’s important to note that these offenses did not include vague references to sexual immorality in general; the laws are concerned with the act itself.

[3] I don’t have the time or energy to elaborate on this theme here. For a good overview and argument for Old Covenant indwelling of the Spirit, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:272-280.

[4] See Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

[5] The quotation from the LXX (Rahlfs) at Deut 17:7 (ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων καὶ ἐξαρεῖς τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν) is identical to 1 Cor 5:13 (ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν). The verbs has a different tense-form (the former is an imperatival future, the latter is an aorist), but they are translated exactly the same.

What is Sin (Part 1)?

sinRead the series so far.

This seems to be a simple question, with a simple explanation. I’m willing to bet when you read this question, you immediately started thinking of sin as an action in contradiction to an established norm. You aren’t alone – I did the same thing. We instinctively answer this question as if sin is an act. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the closest thing we have in America to a recognized lexical standard, defines sin as, “an offense against religious or moral law.”[1]

It is true that a sin is a transgression against a moral law. From the Christian worldview, the very idea of objective morality, and the universal human ability to differentiate between the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are proof that:

  1. there is a Creator,
  2. we are His creatures – created in His image,
  3. He defines morality and the concepts of “good” and “evil,” and
  4. all human beings are subject to His rule and, therefore, His law.

But, that’s not the whole story. It isn’t enough to craft a definition based on external actions and call it a day. Is sin just about externalism? Is it possible to think about something, and commit a sin? Is temptation still a sin, because it’s purely an internal lust? To get down to brass tacks, consider this:

  • Can you lust after a co-worker, as long as you don’t act on the thought?
  • Can you plan to murder the nosy neighbor next door, even if you don’t ever carry out this dastardly deed?
  • Can you pretend to be nice to a Christian brother, while inwardly you hate him?

If sin is simply an outward action, the answer to each of these is, “Yes!” Unfortunately, some popular theology texts do define sin as externalism. Consider these examples:

  • Charles Ryrie: “[S]in is missing the mark, badness, rebellion, iniquity, going astray, wickedness, wandering, ungodliness, crime, lawlessness, transgression, and a falling away.”[2] This is not really a definition at all; it’s a list! But, do you notice how these descriptions are more about external action than anything else?
  • Emery Bancroft: He defines sin as (1) missing the mark of the divine standard, (2) a lapse from God’s requirement, (3) a perversion of what is right, (4) a passing over of the boundaries of God’s law, (5) an affront to God, (6) unfaithfulness, (7) an offense, (7) a failure in duty and (8) disobedience.[3] Again, this isn’t really a systematic definition at all – it’s a redundant list.

Back to externals – is sin more than an act? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed the Old Covenant law as it was meant to be understood.[4] It was not meant to be a checklist; it was a Covenant to be obeyed from the heart. This is why Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:21-22).

You might not really shoot your nosy neighbor (or his annoying dog) twice in the chest with your trusty 9mm, but if you thought about it, you’re just as guilty. I’m being slightly silly, but you get the point. Here is a more pedestrian example:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27-28).

Yes, it is true you didn’t sleep with your co-worker. But, you thought about it. A lot. You are just as guilty.

It seems as if It seems sin is much more than mere action. Behold this good definition of sin from a conservative Baptist theologian:

Sin is any lack of conformity, active or passive, to the moral law of God. This may be a matter of act, of thought, or of inner disposition or state. [5]

There is a lot which could be written from this, but I’ll focus on a few components:

  1. Sin is an action
  2. It is also a thought
  3. It is also a matter of status (i.e. disposition or state)

The last bit is particularly important. You can commit a sinful action. You can think a sinful thought. But, sin is also described in Scripture as a state of being. “Acts of sin spring from a principle or nature that is sin.”[6] We are born by nature as children of wrath, which means we’re born as sinful people, in active rebellion against our Creator. As the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith put it:

We believe that man was created in a state of holiness, under the law of His Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from the happy and holy 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, wholly given over to the gratification of the world, of Satan, and of their own sinful passions, therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.[7]

Consider also the Apostle Paul’s words:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:15-18).

Sin here is not an abstract action. It is a state of being. In this passage, it is a taskmaster people are naturally enslaved to – a master who only brings death. In contrast, God is the good master who distributes righteousness to His slaves.

So, when you think about sin, remember it is much more than an action. It is also a thought in your mind and heart. It is also a status which brings eternal damnation and everlasting condemnation, unending hostility and anger from the Holy God who made you, fashioned you, sustains you and calls you even now to repentance and faith in His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

But, is there something even more fundamental, more basic, to the idea of “sin?” There is. For, now, however . . . ciao.

Notes

[1] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), s.v. “sin,” 1a.

[2] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 243-244.

[3] Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 218-226.

[4] See Leon Morris, The Gospel of Matthew, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 112-113. D.A. Carson quibbled a bit, and wrote, “The contrast between what the people had heard and what Jesus taught is not based on distinctions like casuistry versus love, outer legalism versus inward commitment, or even false interpretation versus true interpretation, though all of them impinge collaterally on the text. Rather, in every case Jesus contrasts the people’s misunderstanding of the law with the true direction in which the law points, according to His own authority as the law’s ‘fulfiller’ . . . (Matthew, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 148).

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 596.

[6] Henry C. Theissen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 244.

[7] 1833 NHCF, Article 3, quoted in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 362.

 

Goodbye, Cruel World

t2-poster
He’ll be bach . . .

The Bible is serious about the last days. Serious in a sober sort of way. Not in a Left Behind kind of way. Not in a John “Blood Moon” Hagee sort of way. Certainly not in a FaceBook meme sort of way. We can learn a whole lot about God, the depths of our own sinfulness, and His holiness if we paid more attention to the Book of Revelation in a serious way. Consider these words:

Revelation 19:1-5 After these things I heard what sounded like the loud voice of a vast throng in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, because his judgments are true and just. For he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her sexual immorality, and has avenged the blood of his servants poured out by her own hands!” Then a second time the crowd shouted, “Hallelujah!” The smoke rises from her forever and ever. The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures threw themselves to the ground and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne, saying: “Amen! Hallelujah!” Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God all you his servants, and all you who fear Him, both the small and the great!”

Verse 1

The Apostle John has just described God’s wrath being poured out onto this wicked world. The capitol city of wickeness and evil, personified by the figure of the lecherous and decandent “woman” (cf. Rev 17:4ff), has been destroyed. In the last days, this world will be awash in a sea of wickedness and excess which boggles the mind.

Satan will have his brief period of autonomy (“for he knows that he only has a little time,” Rev 12:12). He will establish his own kingdom on the earth, patterned after the Lord’s, but every bit as evil as Yahweh’s is holy. Satan will install his own man on the throne, just as God will do with Christ. But, this man will be everything Christ is not. He will be the anti-Christ.

This shadow kingdom of doom and debauchery will not last long. God will destroy it.

Revelation 16:17-19 Finally the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying: “It is done!” Then there were flashes of lightning, roaring, and crashes of thunder, and there was a tremendous earthquake – an earthquake unequaled since humanity has been on the earth, so tremendous was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts and the cities of the nations collapsed. So Babylon the great was remembered before God, and was given the cup filled with the wine made of God’s furious wrath.

Immediately after this event in chronology, we have our small little passage from Revelation 19. What is happening here? We hear a great chorus in heaven. It could be either angels or redeemed men and women. We don’t know. But, we do know what they’re saying.

They’re praising God. That’s what “Hellelujah” means. Is it strange that they’re praising God as thousands upon thousands of people lie dead on earth? Why is this happening? Why did God give John this vision, and move him to record it for us?

They praise God because salvation, honor and power belongs to Him:

  • The right to bestow salvation.
  • The right to author salvation.
  • To right to grant salvation to whomever He wishes.
  • Honor is due to him
  • Honor is demanded by Him
  • Honor will be granted to Him and to His Son (cf. Phil 2:10-11)
  • Power belongs to Him
  • This world is run by Him, governed by Him, controlled by Him, and His laws and commandments are the rule of the land.

Verse 2:

Why do they praise God? There are three reasons, and they’re all clearly set out in the Greek text by the word we translate “because” (ὅτι) and by one conjunction:

  1. because His judgments are true and righteous. God will judge this world, and He’ll be right to do it. People will die. Women will die. Men will die. Cute kittens will die. FaceBook will die. Even Waldo will be found out. Have you ever considered why this kind of devestation and destruction is worthy of praise? Does this disgust you? Does it go against the image you have of God, and His beloved Son, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah? It shouldn’t. Read Psalm 2 or Psalm 110. Think about it.
  2. because God has judged Satan’s world system, culture and false religion of rebellion, selfishness, wickedness and dark debauchery – personified by this “great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her sexual immorality,” (Rev 19:2). Every single person who will die on this terrible day will hate God, hate His Messiah, and love sin. They’ll deserve to die. God’s judgments are true because they’ll be poured out upon those who hate Him – their creator and sustainer.
  3. and because God is avenging His adopted children, whose blood has been poured out by this world’s wicked hands. God will avenge His own.

Verses 3-4:

The praise team isn’t done quite yet. Another “Hallelujah” issues from above. Now we have a description; “the smoke rises from her forever and ever.” Smoke from what? From the city which has been destroyed. From the bodies of those who have been slain. From the ruined ashes of Satan’s pitiful rebellion. And the chorus in heaven is praising God for this. Consider that the next time you’re tempted to reduce God to a nice, senile, doddering old grandfather in the sky. His love is never at the expense of His holiness.

To use a colloquial term, things are “gonna get real” one day. And God’s people and His angels (“the twenty-four elders and four living creatures”) will praise and worship Him for it.

Verse 5

A voice calls out from the throne. Is Yahweh’s voice? Probably not (“our”), but it’s a voice we ought to listen to. The voice commands praise to God. From whom? From His slaves and those who fear Him, whether great or small.

God is holy. God is serious about His holiness. This world is His creation. It’s governed by His laws, His commandments, His power and by His rules. God is longsuffering, but that patience has a limit. If a parent never exercises discipline, then he isn’t a parent – he’s a loser. God isn’t a loser. Discipline is coming. Judgment is coming. That judgment will be worthy of praise, because it will be right and true.

God is bigger than we often give Him credit for. This little passage demonstrates that. Goodbye, cruel world. Judgment Day is coming, and it won’t be at the hands of Arnold or the T-1000. It will be worse, and it will be just. Praise God.

The Kingdom of Darkness (Colossians 1:13)

jn812

There is a host of misinformation and lies in the world about the human condition. The Bible makes things very clear. You need to be rescued. You need to be rescued from Satan’s clutches and from his fiery orphanage of the damned. That last bit isn’t hyperbole on my part; after all, a rescue implies some kind of mortal danger, doesn’t it? What on earth do you need to be rescued from?

12Giving thanks to the Father, who made you acceptable to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light, 13who rescued us from the kingdom of the darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14in whom we now have the redemption, that is, the forgiveness of sins.[1]

The Bible tells us you need to be rescued and delivered “from the kingdom of darkness” (ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους). Some translations render this as “delivered,” but I don’t think this is brutal, stark or arresting enough. It’s too dainty, too proper, too high-brow. You don’t need to be delivered, you need to be rescued from Satan’s kingdom. 

This phrase is usually translated two different ways; as “power of darkness” (Tyndale, KJV, NKJV, NET, ISV) or “domain of darkness” (LEB, ESV, NASB). The idea of darkness is very clear in Greek, but the word ἐξουσίας is expressing the idea of sphere of control or rule. Another interesting possibility is jurisdiction. Altogether, you have several good translation options, each of which paints a dark and forbidding picture of who we really are. We are, all of us, people who desperately need to be rescued from the jurisdiction, power, domain and kingdom of darkness.

Darkness is the domain of Satan. It isn’t any wonder that our popular culture depicts evil in sinister shades of black (for example, think Darth Vader and “the dark side”), and good in glowing robes of white. This is Biblical imagery.

  • People are trapped in the dark clutches of sin, their hearts and minds veiled by Satan’s cloak, and it is the “light of the glorious Gospel of Christ” which shines in unto His elect people (2 Corinthians 4:4-5), casting aside this vile net of iniquity and delusion “so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel.”[2]
  • An unbeliever’s understanding is “darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart,” (Ephesians 4:18). Thus, this darkness isn’t literal; it’s spiritual. An unbeliever cannot know God, please God, or understand God because of this spiritual darkness.
  • The Apostle Paul admonished the Christians in Ephesus, “for ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light,” (Ephesians 5:8).
  • A Christian is somebody whom God has called “out of darkness into his marvellous light,” (2 Peter 2:9).
  • The Apostle John, echoing His Lord’s “new commandment” (Jn 13:34-35), wrote that external behavior revealed the true state of one’s heart. “He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now,” (1 John 2:9).
  • Jesus Christ Himself is depicted as the bright and shining light, sent from God with the precious message of salvation, redemption and reconciliation; “in him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not,” (John 1:4-5).

This is not good news. The Apostle Paul did not beat around the bush. Elsewhere, he made it clear that an unbeliever is spiritually dead, wallowing in his own trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Every single person in the world naturally lives according to the normal course of this sin-cursed and condemned word, according to the “prince of the power of the air,” who is Satan. People are born with Satan as their spiritual father (cf. John 8:44ff), their wills, minds, hearts and souls enslaved to him and all the wickedness he stands for. It is Satan who is working right now, every moment of every day, in his children’s lives, whom Paul calls the “children of disobedience,” (Ephesians 2:2). Even worse, the Bible tells us that everybody is born, by our very nature, makeup and constitution as sinners, as “children of wrath,” (Ephesians 2:3).

This is what you need to be rescued from, and this is what Christ has, is and will infallibly accomplish (cf. John 6:37) for all those who are His. You are born under the jurisdiction of Satan, subject to his laws, his standards, his will, his character, his nature and his wickedness. You reflect those qualities, you live according to these characteristics and you echo your spiritual father’s criminal spirit. As the Bible says, you are inherently unprofitable and worthless to God the way you are (Romans 3:12). You are under his domain and power, subject to his control, his influence, his whims and his regulations. He is the rudder of the ship of wickedness, sin and rebellion that is you. You were born a citizen of his vile, unrighteous and evil kingdom – a kingdom of darkness – and you will remain a resident in that kingdom unless or until you repent of your sins and believe the Good News which Jesus Christ willingly and voluntarily suffered, bled and died to bring to you.

There is Good News (εὐαγγέλιον – “Gospel”) to combat this Bad News. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. You are a sinner. He came to save, reconcile, redeem and forgive people from every tribe, tongue people and nation on earth; to rescue them from the kingdom of darkness and transfer them to His own kingdom. You can be adopted into Jesus’ kingdom. This is why Paul told the Christians in Colossae to be “giving thanks to the Father,” because Jesus, “made [them] acceptable to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light.” Hopefully you, too, can join the saints from Colossae in thanking God for the wonderful gift of salvation in Christ Jesus!


[1] This is from my own translation; the exegetical work can be found here.

[2]  Article VII, in The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff (New York, NY: Harper & Bros, 1882), 3:774.

When is God Merciful?

Ps 51 (1-2)

The Psalms are a collections of songs, written by different people over many, many years. The Psalms have always been treasured because they express the most basic and fundamental human emotions in poetic form – they give voice to what so many of us experience in our lives. If you’ve ever had a favorite song on the radio that expresses emotions, fears, anxieties and values that particularly resonate with you, then you’ll understand why the Book of Psalms is such an important part of the Bible. These psalms do the very same thing, but from a spiritual perspective – which makes them much more valuable than the catchy song on the radio!

Psalm 51 has always had a treasured place in Christian’s hearts, because every Christian can see himself in David’s words. We can transport ourselves into David’s world, understand his fears, feel his anxieties and experience the aching shame of regret for our sin. This is the value of the psalms – they express the timelessness of human emotions towards God. It doesn’t matter when the Psalm was written; it conveys feelings and attitudes that are universal. Time does not and cannot render these emotions obsolete.

In this Psalm, King David is begging God for mercy:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions (Psalm 51:1)

  • Why is David asking for mercy?

He realizes that he has done something wrong, something wicked, something that God is not pleased with, something that is disgraceful to the Lord. Only somebody who belongs to the Lord by repentance and faith in Christ will actually feel ashamed of their conduct and beg for mercy.

There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God (Romans 3:11)

Now, this isn’t to say that unbelievers will never feel sorry for foolish and sinful things they do. What I mean is that it is impossible for unbelievers to feel a sense of accountability to the Lord, and a corresponding sense of shame and sorrow for their failure to serve Him. This is why the Apostle Paul warned us that, in our natural state as lost and rebellious sinners (cf. Romans 3:9-18):

  • There is nobody who is righteous
  • There is nobody who seeks God
  • Everybody is inherently worthless to God
  • There is no fear of God before anybody’s eyes

So, it’s important to realize that the only reason why David is even begging God for mercy in the first place is because he is a believer – and he therefore feels a profound and deep sense of sorrow and shame for his sins, so he begs God for mercy. Mercy is when God decides to withhold punishment that you deserve – this is what David is begging for.

  • What grounds does David have to ask God for mercy in the first place?

There two – (1) God’s lovingkindness and (2) the multitude of His tender mercies.

David can ask for mercy because he believes in God’s promise of the coming Savior – Jesus Christ. From our perspective, Jesus has already come, lived a perfect life for our sake, been tortured and executed for our sake, and rose miraculously from the dead to prove His jurisdiction, power and authority over Satan. From David’s perspective , this is all future – and he believes that God will do it. Know this – the only basis you have for begging God for mercy in the first place is if you have obeyed Jesus’ command to repent and believe the Gospel.

David is a believer in the future Messiah, Jesus Christ, and therefore has a right to lay claim to God’s lovingkindness and His tender mercy.

  • What does David ask God to do once mercy is granted?

He asks God to “blot out” out his transgressions because of the multitude of God’s “tender mercies.” If you belong to the Lord by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, then you have a perfect forgiveness and perfect assurance of forgiveness. Only a saved person can pray this kind of prayer.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51:2).

 

I can’t think of a more beautiful metaphor for the kind of forgiveness and mercy God shows to His adopted children. David speaks of a complete washing and cleansing from all sin, and the clear conscience that comes from knowing you’ve actually been forgiven.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

This is all present-tense, and this is the kind of forgiveness and mercy that David believes in and looks forward to – and asks God for. What Christian cannot read David’s words and reflect on his own life, his own moral failures, his own unworthiness and his own need for forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and adoption into God’s family by Jesus Christ!?

More on Psalm 51 next time . . .

The Depths of Human Sin

I woke up to read a startling new story out of China. A mother apparently flushed her newborn baby down the toilet immediately after giving birth. By the grace of God, this poor little boy did not die. Neighbors in their apartment block heard him crying and telephoned authorities, who were able to rescue him from inside the building’s sewer pipe.

baby boy 1

God only knows if this poor boy will be all right, going forward. As I looked at these sad pictures, and thought of the terror and fright this poor baby was experiencing trapped inside that wretched pipe, I am reminded about what Scripture says about our own sinfulness.

10 as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. 13 Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. 14 Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known. 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes. 19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:10-20).

baby boy 2

This tragic story is a sad testament to the corruption of the human heart. Who can look upon this poor little baby, stuffed like filth into a sewer pipe, and not believe people are sinful? Men and women, alone among God’s creations, are unique – we are made in the very image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 2:5b). This makes man special and unique before God. He was created by the very breath, or creative force, of God (Gen 2:7). This image was not physical, but relational. Just as God has authority and power over everything, man was given special authority over God’s creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15). Adam was appointed a steward of God’s creation, meant to have dominion over it all. Eve was created to be a help and companion to Adam in fulfilling this task (Gen 2:18).

Human life is therefore sacred. This why, after the worldwide flood, God commanded men to impose the death penalty for murder; “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” (Gen 9:6).

baby boy 3

It breaks my heart to see such wickedness and sin, especially against a helpless little child. Our world is full of sin and wickedness. Praise God He provided a Savior for us in Jesus Christ. This is why Scripture speaks of the “grace of God.” We do not deserve this kind of mercy; how could sinful men who are capable of this terrible act, and so many more, ever hope to earn their salvation? We cannot. There is nothing in sinful men and women, you or I, that God can find pleasure in or accept for salvation. We are dead in trespasses and sins, and are “by nature the children of wrath,” (Eph 2:1-3).

In light of this, Christ preached everywhere for men to repent of their sins and believe in the Gospel (Mk 1:15).

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Jn 14:6)

As we look at these sad pictures, we can see clearly how much people need Christ.

baby boy 4

baby boy 5