An unavoidable truth: the doctrine of sin today

The heart and wellspring of all evangelical theology is the cross of the Christ. It is in the light of the cross that we truly understand God and truly understand ourselves.

It demonstrates God’s deep and determined love and it demonstrates God’s deep and determined love for sinners (Rom 5:8). I cannot avoid the reality and seriousness of my sin when I attend to the awful glory of what happened outside the walls of Jerusalem 2000 years ago. I cannot avoid the determined and loving purpose of God when I consider who it was who died there. The innocent Christ of God, the Word made flesh, the glorious Son who took to himself in the fullest way possible the form of a servant, was butchered as an insurrectionist by those who denied the Father who sent him. Since God was certainly not powerless to prevent it, nor does he take some kind of perverse pleasure in such acts of gross injustice and cruelty, especially when directed towards his Son, we are forced to ask what made it necessary. What was so serious that such a grim remedy was needed? What turns this divine and human tragedy into an act of love?

In the light of questions like these, it is no surprise that the doctrine of sin has long been a critical part of the Christian gospel. When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the things of ‘first importance’ he began with “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor 15:3). Our gospel is the gospel concerning God’s Son, the crucified Messiah, whose death was all about dealing with our sin. The cross is an act of love because it deals with our sin. It is a wonderful victory because it deals with our sin. It opens up a path to a renewed and perfect creation—a ‘new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Pet 3:13)—because it deals with our sin.

“… across the world, both inside and outside the churches, an awareness of sin and judgement is conspicuously lacking. How did it get to this point?”

As you read through the New Testament it soon becomes clear that any theology which unfolds from the gospel with its centre in the cross of Christ must not minimize the reality and seriousness of sin. And yet, in so many theologies and in so many churches and Christian lives, the doctrine of sin is either missing or redefined beyond all recognition.

1. Sin as a vanishing Christian doctrine

I was recently in a gathering of Anglicans from around Australia discussing whether it was a good idea for us all to stay together and if so how it could be done. The honest discussion exposed some very deep differences in our theology. The idea that all men and women are lost in sin and need to be saved, that without hearing the gospel and putting their trust in Jesus they would be facing a just judgement of God, was ridiculed in some quarters. Some who were still happy to use the language of sin redefined it as brokenness, without any suggestion of moral guilt or accountability to a holy God. Sin, as the Bible speaks of it, doesn’t make sense to them any more. And you don’t have to be widely read to know that they are not alone. In fact across the world, both inside and outside the churches, an awareness of sin and judgement is conspicuously lacking. How did it get to this point? Let me suggest a few things before drilling down to the real answer to that question.

a. A reaction to real and imagined legalism

Over the past 50 years or so a huge cultural shift has removed what was a relatively common understanding of duty, accountability and obedience. Once they were considered good, healthy, appropriate patterns of thinking and behaviour. Today they are more likely to be seen as oppressive, inhibiting, and destructive, even in the churches. Sometimes they’ve been identified with the negative, legalistic Christianity of a bygone era, which rightly was set aside with a recovery of the doctrines of grace. That such legalism did, and still does, exist should be beyond doubt. But evangelical Christianity has celebrated grace and evangelical freedom without dispensing with obedience, accountability and duty. Nevertheless, a persistent parody of all Christians as narrow-minded legalists and killjoys has contributed to a flight from all talk about sin. (Think about how Christians were regularly portrayed in the American political drama series The West Wing.)

b. Redefinition by liberal and liberation theologies

Theologians have been complicit in this, of course. Rejecting the biblical teaching about wrath and judgement, liberal theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth century redefined sin in a variety of ways. Liberation theologies have tended to concentrate on our alienation from each other and especially oppressive social, political and economic structures as the epitome of sin. Feminist theology has taken another step and argued that sin takes different forms in those with power as opposed to those without; most especially does it have a different character in women from what it has in men. Process theology sees sin as any obstacle to the development of the human race, any decision against our potential.

c. The rejection of a historical ‘Fall’

For some, pressure from evolutionary science and even critical biblical scholarship has called into question the historicity of the biblical account of the Fall in Genesis 3. As a result they reconfigure the doctrine of sin as a mythical attempt to explain the nature of the world, where struggle and success, blessing and brokenness exist side by side.

d. An accent on original goodness and an affirmation of the world

Contemporary apologists keep reminding us of the need to engage the world constructively and with an affirming voice. For too long, we are told, the Christian voice has been unrelentingly negative and this has made it difficult for us to be heard. The goodness of the created order is affirmed by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, where created humanity is taken into the Godhead, not left in the grave or shed at the end of his earthly ministry. There is a great deal of truth in this but it is certainly not the whole story. The humanity Jesus took with him to the Father’s side bears the marks of the crucifixion just as the good world that God created bears the scars of human sinfulness, and groans awaiting its redemption (or rather, the revelation of the sons of God, Rom 8:19). There is no unalloyed good on this side of the Fall.

e. A romantic view of sin: The tragic hero

Another contributor to revised attitudes towards sin, and indeed the eclipse of the concept in contemporary thinking, is the heroic dimensions given to human failure in the literature of the past couple of centuries. Somehow, the deeper the flaw the more engaging the character, and we learn to look beyond the seriousness of their arrogance or greed or violence or lust. We become practiced at making excuses for the characters we enjoy the most.

But as influential as each of these five factors have been, they are really symptoms of something far more basic. The Bible provides its own explanation for the refusal to take sin seriously.

f. The reality of sin and darkening of the human mind

Psalm 14 puts it succinctly:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps 14:1)

The one who removes God from consideration, who is unresponsive to God, is a fool. In the words of John Woodhouse:

People who do not take God seriously find it very difficult to see the seriousness of not taking God seriously. To refuse to take God seriously is the ultimate stupidity but once you have committed it, the inevitable effect is to blind you to its idiocy. It does not seem at all stupid not to take God seriously, if you don’t… Our sinfulness gets in the way of seeing our sinfulness.1

A similar point is made in Romans 1, where the downward spiral of sin begins with a suppression of the truth (perhaps the suppression of the truth by the first man and woman in the Garden) but descends very quickly into the foolishness David was speaking about in Psalm 14:

For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools… And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Rom 1:21–22, 28)

Ultimately it is sin itself which is the root cause of the contemporary abandonment of sin.

So what then does God’s word say about sin?

2. The biblical teaching about sin: A very brief summary

There are dangers in speaking about sin, just as there are dangers in not speaking about sin. One of the dangers in speaking about sin is that we ‘naturalize’ it, we give it a place in creation as one part of the complex, organic reality which God intended from the beginning. In doing so we lose a sense of its absurdity, the sense that it does not belong. Sin comes into the Garden from the outside without explanation and the attempt to give it an explanation would in some sense dignify it.

Nevertheless, the Bible does have a great deal to say about sin, its nature, its universal and indeed cosmic impact, its consequences, and of course its defeat by the one who bore it on the cross and exhausted its curse. Inevitably we are drawn to Genesis 3 and the temptation in the Garden.

The first thing to notice is something we have seen already: sin enters God’s good creation from the outside, so to speak. The serpent enters the Garden, unintroduced and unexplained (3:1). It is perfectly clear that he is a created being, but we are not told where he comes from or how he got into the Garden. He is not part of the idyllic picture of Genesis 2. He is not a natural part of the experience of the man and woman God has created. The incidental description of him as a ‘beast of the field’ does however highlight the absurdity, the unnaturalness of what is about to happen. In a world where God has given dominion to human beings, a dominion that extends to the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, livestock, and ‘every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’ (Gen 1:26), the very idea that a ‘beast of the field’ should direct the course of events points us to the profound disordering of the creation that is taking place at this moment.

A second thing to notice is that the temptation has reference to God right from the beginning. The first words spoken are “Did God actually say…” As much as sin is a disordering of God’s creation it is an assault upon God himself. In terms of what was said earlier, at its heart this sin, and all sin, is the refusal or failure to take God seriously. It is not surprising then that David should consider that even sin against others is at its heart sin against God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4). An assault upon others is always an assault upon those whom God created in his own image (Jas 3:9). But if a failure to take God seriously lies at the heart of sin, then it is hardly surprising that those who do not fear God do not ‘get’ the seriousness of sin and consider all talk of judgement as barbaric.

The third thing to notice is that the assault upon God in this incident comes in the form of an assault upon the word which God has spoken. “Did God actually say”, casting doubt upon that word, is then followed by “You will not surely die”, flatly contradicting it. We must not tire of saying that you are not taking God seriously if you are not taking his word seriously. The serpent here begins by sowing doubt about what God has said, then moves on to deny what God has said and then finally slanders God as he provides an alternative rationale for what God has said. The temptation held before this couple is a way of pursuing their own welfare and development apart from God.

Put another way, the sin in the Garden is a grasp at moral autonomy. The man and the woman were meant to learn what was good and what was evil from God and always with reference to God. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil promised a different path to knowledge. They didn’t need God to know what was good and what was evil. The serpent convinced them that God was not forbidding them access to that knowledge as an act of love but as an act of selfishness. What was God talking about suggesting there were dangers attached to this kind of moral autonomy? Which leads to the fourth thing to notice.

This temptation and the sin which proceeds from it involves a denial of accountability and a denial of judgement. There are no consequences, or at least, if there are, they can be contained. This was what the serpent claimed in the Garden. This is what David thought as he contemplated adultery with Bathsheba. This is the regular pattern of thinking when we pursue thinking and behaviour that is contrary to the express will of God.

As we know only too well, the consequences were horrific and remain so today. The shattering of innocence brought stress and strain into every relationship in the Garden: the relationship between the couple and God, the relationship between the man and the woman, the relationship between the couple and the world they were meant to rule and care for and enjoy. The consequences are personal and cosmic. The creation is distorted and its continuing goodness is experienced side by side with resistance and suffering and pain. The knowledge that they gain is puerile—they’re naked, they’re exposed before each other and God.

And yet at each point God’s determined love and grace shines through the disgrace and the disorder and the mess that they’ve created. He reasserts the order he created. It will not be overturned by human sin. But the experience of that order will no longer be unalloyed joy. He promises to undo what has been done—that wonderful but as yet still dim light of the gospel, “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). God himself clothes them far more effectively than they could ever do for themselves (Gen 3:21). And he deals out judgement with kindness: they will die and that will bring an end to the struggle and the stress and the strain.

Sin and its consequences are not simply a transitory feature in the creation. The contagion spreads in the chapters that follow, with the murder of Abel by his brother, the reckless disregard for life in Cain’s descendant Lamech, a world of violence and evil that provokes the flood, and the Tower of Babel where once again an attempt is made to secure a human future without reference to God (“let us make a name for ourselves”, Gen 11:4). It has become a settled feature of human experience, a bias towards self-rule and the exclusion of God by refusing his word, and it shadows the behaviour of every human being. Paul had ample precedent when he summed up the human condition to the Romans as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

“Sin has become a settled feature of human experience, and it shadows the behaviour of every human being.”

Of course Paul will go on to speak about the answer to sin and all its consequences in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He came and he died to deal with sin. In his own temptation in the wilderness—in the midst of our disordered world not in the closeted perfection of the Garden—Jesus repeatedly exercised his trust in his heavenly Father by taking a stand upon his word. He would not provide for himself, pursue an alternate route to glory, or prostrate himself before the tempter as the man and woman had done in the Garden. And by his death sin is defeated, its power is taken away. The condemnation we deserve is replaced with justification for all those who are in Christ Jesus. The corruption we have brought upon ourselves is overtaken in our sanctification, the gift of the Spirit and the treading down of death. The enslavement to sin, which has been a feature of human life since the Garden, is broken as we are redeemed and have been freed to live as fellow heirs with Christ. Apart from him none of this would have been possible. The guilt and corruption and enslavement of sin penetrates all aspects of life in every descendent of Adam and Eve. We cannot break free in our own strength because every resource we would need to do this has been compromised by sin. But sin has not had the final word because Jesus has emptied it of its power. Any Christian contemplation of sin in the light of the gospel must proclaim the mercy of God, the determined love of God, which ensured the treachery in the Garden and in the lives of each of us would be undone.

3. Ministry that takes sin seriously

What will it look like when such truths are taken seriously? How does the doctrine of sin impact the practice of Christian ministry?

1. The doctrine of sin points us to a common problem

Every person we come in contact with—every person we share the gospel with, every person we seek to love and grow as disciples of Christ—shares with us this profound problem of sin. It will manifest itself in different ways to be sure, but the fundamental bias against taking God and his word seriously is something we can assume in all of us. We all struggle with the temptation to determine for ourselves what will serve our best interests, maximize our happiness, be the right thing to do in a particular situation—without recourse to the God who made us and sent his Son so that we might be redeemed. If that is true, there is no place for assuming an air of moral superiority, as if we have somehow broken free of all temptation ourselves. How we treat those around us must be characterized by a deep sympathy for them and a deep desire that they might know the freedom of sin forgiven. I know we all know that. We can all tick the box. But how deeply has it penetrated the way we walk with those around us?

It does mean there is a point of contact with everyone we talk to. In different ways and in different situations they will know the frustration that is associated with trying to control themselves and their environment when it is ultimately impossible. We have a common problem. I needed to be forgiven just like them.

2. Be prepared for disorder in the lives of those around you, as well as blindness to the problem

The impact of the Fall has been profound both in scope and in intensity. It should not come as a shock, even though it remains tragic. We need to remember that the twin truths of the universality of sin and the total depravity of all human beings are not simply theoretical but very practical indeed. It is an act of love to anticipate and put in place strategies that recognize the reality of temptation and the human capacity to rationalize it. To ignore these things is the real unkindness. That is why even in a Christian theological college we put supervisors in examination rooms. It is an act of kindness to minimize the possibility of succumbing to temptation. Similarly it is why we insist on two people counting the money in church. It minimizes the opportunity for temptation. It is why Christian ministers are advised to keep the door open when interviewing someone of the opposite sex. None of this should be dismissed as petty legalism. It is love borne out of a realistic picture of temptation and human vulnerability.

Not only should we be prepared for disorder in the lives of those around us, and the lingering reality of that disorder even in the lives of our Christian brothers and sisters, we must be prepared for blindness to the problem itself. We should expect people will have difficulty taking sin seriously because of the biblical testimony about the critical impact of sin on the way we think. The fact that nobody wants to think of themselves as prone to temptation and sin is itself a consequence of the Fall.

3. The preaching of the gospel cannot avoid the problem of sin without distorting the gospel

At its heart the gospel is about Jesus, who died for our sins. For this reason, to downplay sin is to distort the gospel and to challenge the character of God. If sin is not so serious, and if it can be overcome some other way than through the cosmic tragedy of Jesus’ trial and suffering and death and resurrection, then huge questions emerge about the goodness of God and his sovereign power. The reality is that the glory of the gospel exposes the darkness of the sin that made it necessary, and the darkness of sin provides a context in which the brightness of the gospel can be truly appreciated. The power of the gospel message lies in this, that my sin made the cross necessary, that I could not do the slightest thing to extricate myself, so profound was the hold of sin on my life, and that God’s own Son was willing to do all of that for me.

4. Confession is not an incidental part of the Christian life or the Christian gathering

“Some Christians have difficulty with seeing the world outside of Christ as lost and so have difficulty affirming the propriety and importance of mission and evangelism.”

I have a friend who likes to greet me with the question “Are you still confessing your sins?” I hasten to say that he asks this of others too, not just me! When you think about it, after you get over the initial shock, it is a very pastorally sensitive thing to do. Too often confession is a feature of prayer that slips out of our daily practice. It is also the feature which presses upon us our humble dependence upon God and the forgiveness he provided in Christ. It is not an accident that the liturgies in Cranmer’s prayer books highlighted the importance of confession. The great slogans in Martin Luther’s great lectures on the book of Romans—that we are at one and the same time righteous and a sinner, the Christian life is about always sinning, always repenting but always being righteous before God—make the same point. Confession is not an incidental feature of Christian prayer and it ought to be a prominent feature of the prayer we make when we are gathered with other Christians.

5. We need to recover the language of the ‘lost’ with its impetus for evangelism and mission

The meeting with Australian Anglicans I mentioned a little while ago comes flooding back to mind. Some Christians have difficulty with seeing the world outside of Christ as lost and so have difficulty affirming the propriety and importance of mission and evangelism. Though it is undeniably the language of the Bible, they suggest that to contemporary ears it sounds far too condescending and even imperialistic. It would, of course, if we did not insist that without Christ we would be lost too! But when the language of ‘lostness’ and ‘impending judgement’ fades from our conversation and our imagination, the impetus for evangelism and mission (concern for those who are lost) fades as well. Conversely, if the Christian life is really about growing like Jesus (Rom 8:29) then surely we must grow like him in our concern for the lost.

6. In our positive engagement with the world, don’t concede too much

We all want to be heard and none of us wants to be cast as the gloomy neo-Puritan naysayer. In addition, there is much in the world that we want to make clear we enjoy and delight in as much as the next person. But we must not forget that the world in which we live is broken, and even the good we see in it shares in its brokenness. The Christian hope is not simply for a continuation of this world but rather a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. As the apostle Peter put it in his letter, “by that same word [the word of God] the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:7).

7. Be prepared to be misunderstood, especially about sin

This is Tim Keller’s point in a piece he wrote back in 2003:

When others hear a Christian call something ‘sin’, they believe you are saying “These are bad people (and I am good). These are people who should be shunned, excluded (and I should be welcomed). These are people whom God condemns because of this behaviour (but I am accepted by God because I don’t do that).”

You may not mean that by the term ‘sin’ at all, but you must realize and expect that others will hear what you are saying that way. They have to. Until they grasp the profound difference between religion and the Christian faith, they will probably understand your invoking of the word ‘sin’ as self-righteous condemnation—no matter what your disclaimers.2

But long before Keller, it was the Psalmist’s point in Psalm 14 and Paul’s point in Romans 1. Sin blinds people to the truth about sin. It is only when we know Christ in the gospel, when hard hearts are softened by the work of the Holy Spirit, that the truth about sin becomes clear and urgent and terrifying.

To deny the God who gave you life and sought you out at such great cost is a monstrous thing. I made the cross necessary. That’s true but it’s only half the story. The cross was necessary because God was not prepared to let sin have the last word in my life, and he was determined to have me as his own. Understanding sin and understanding God’s grace in the gospel go together.

  1.  J Woodhouse, ‘The Fall’, from unpublished Doctrine 1 lecture notes, Moore Theological College, 2012.
  2.  T Keller, ‘Understanding Sin’, p.2. (PDF link)

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