Hamartiology: What is Sin?
Is Man basically good? Or evil? One's worldview ultimately boils down to whether or not mankind needs to be regenerated or not. The logical outflow from there informs the rest of an individual's beliefs. If humans don't need to be regenerated, how does one account for evil? Does evil exist at all? If humans do need to be regenerated, what has corrupted them? How are they restored? Thus, the origins of Man and his actions are foundational to the understanding Man's present condition and next steps.
Non-negotiable aspects of Sin that God has revealed in His Word serve as dogmas. All Christians must hold that Man was created essentially good but is now existentially estranged. This understanding requires a logical progression: First, it must be recognized that Human Essence is good. At the end of the Creation account of Genesis, God declared all of His creation “good,” including Man who was made in the very image of God. Jesus Christ is fully Man, and yet without sin, which proves that human nature at its core cannot be essentially evil. However, Adam & Eve's failure of God's one command led to the systemic corruption of all Mankind. Thus, sin is Man's creation, not God's. This has become Man's “second nature” resulting in the current Human Condition of Primal Falleness. This Falleness, also known as Original Sin, mars God's image in Man, resulting in the universality of sin, which separates Man from God. As a result, every person, save Christ alone, has been in need of regeneration to save them from their sin nature. This universal corruption results in Human Sinning, the willful commission of actual sins.
What is sin? (Definition): The Hebrew and Greek terms for sin simply translate as “an offense” or more literally “to miss” the mark. Both Old and New Testament teachings best define sin as any failure to conform to the moral law of God whether by action (offense) or inaction, attitude, or nature (that “misses the mark” of falls short of God's perfect standard).1 The difficulty of this definition is that requires individual's to know God's moral law, so that even the famed John Wesley asked: what is sin to me? To which his mother gave one of the best definitions on sin: "Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself." -- Susanna Wesley (Letter, June 8, 1725)
Negotiable aspects of Sin are regulated to the totality and essence of sin.Believers in Christ are free to disagree on doctrines relating to the understanding and experience of sin.
What is sin? (Essence): Believers are also free to decide whether the Essence of Sin (the attitude at the core of Actual sin) is a result of: Concupiscence, undue desire (i.e. self-gratification); Pride, placing oneself before God; Idolatry, worshipping non-gods in lieu of God; or all of the above, in which sin is the idolatry of worshiping and granting the desires of oneself.
At some level the Intensity of Original Sin must be recognized, the most common include: Total depravity, which holds that no part of the human person is left uncorrupted and Man can do nothing spiritually good without supernatural grace – the image of God in Man is shattered; Partial depravity, which holds that some aspects of the human person are left undamaged by the fall and Man, despite his spiritual neediness, still has moral reasoning and ability to know God's existence and some of His attributes – the image of God in Man is marred; No depravity, only misery, which holds that Man is merely in a miserable condition caused by the corruption of the social environment, and Man only needs to be enlightened and assisted to overcome the evil in and around us – the image of God is smothered.
The Extent of Condemnation from Original Sin is generally linked to an Intensity stance and is usually regulated to: Universal guilt, where every human (except Jesus) is born condemned, which may result from the inheritance of Adam's sin, Adam's federal headship of the race, or the inheritance of a spiritual corruption; Guilt for adults, which applies condemnation only to individuals who have reached the age of accountability and willfully participate with their fallen condition; Universal guilt atoned for by Christ, believes that Christ's universal atonement removed the guilt of Original Sin.
Whether or not Actual can be avoided typically extends as a logical conclusion of One's understanding of Original Sin and may include: Actual sin is inevitable but unnecessary, which argues that there is no perfection in this life for believers before our resurrection and glorification, but progress should be seen as part of a Christian's maturation process; Actual sin may is avoidable by choice of the will, which holds that holy living according the word of God (the Higher Christian Life) by the denial of selfish desires and allowing the Holy Spirit's assistance can result in the resistance of all temptation; Actual sin is avoidable after “entire sanctification,” believes that a level of holiness can be achieved that eradicates or removes the “sin nature” so that a person's sole desires are so centered around love that actual sins are not committed.
What is sin? (Do's & Dont's): While the Bible has many lists of actions and thoughts that are clear and certainly sin, others are openly debated. So Christians are free to disagree on: Categorization, what kind of sin an action may or may not be; Adiaphora, the gray areas where no clear line or distinction is drawn for when one falls into sin (i.e. drinking vs. drunkenness, dancing vs. licentiousness, temptation vs. lust); Severity, seeing some sins as worse than others within Church discipline and ministry (i.e. lust vs. adultery).
How Christians should live in light of the essentials of Hamartiology. The implication of the doctrine of Sin should lead believers to a solemn, yet thankful attitude. It is no coincidence that these are the two attitudes Christians should hold as they approach Communion. For believers should remember that apart from Christ all mankind stands condemned, but are acquitted and given the opportunity to have all sins removed.
Christians should therefore live their life trying to avoid sin in action, inaction and attitude. As Christians mature in their faith they should see victories over temptation and sin less, though this process may see temporary setbacks, overall improvement should always be upward with maturation like a good stock in the stock market.
Christians should also strive to know God's moral law and will so that they may strive to conform to it. Most importantly, Christians should join God on His mission to regenerate people from sin through the good news of Jesus Christ since we are our “Brothers Keeper” according toe the book of James:
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
1I am indebted here to Wayne Grudem's concise definition of sin.
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