Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Doctrine of Sin, Part 1

To begin with, we’ll need a definition of Sin: as Socrates said, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. We can get nowhere unless we’re all on the same page definition-wise. The best definition I could find came from the Puritan Ralph Venning, from a book entitled The Plague of Plagues, which Banner of Truth Trust has republished under the title The Sinfulness of Sin. Venning says “Sin is the transgression of a law, yea of a good law, yea of God's law. Sin presupposes that there is a law in being, for where there is no law there is no transgression (Romans 4:5). But where there is sin, there is a law, and a transgression of the law. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth the law (1 John 3:4)...Now the law not only forbids the doing of evil, whether by thought, word or deed, but also commands the doing of good. So to omit the good commanded is sin, as well (or ill) as is the doing of the evil that is forbidden.” Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues, 1669

Let’s first look at the Nature of Sin.

In the first place, we can say that it is self-assertion. We have a few Biblical references which demonstrate what we are saying, and we could easily multiply this list a hundredfold. Seen in this light, sin is an asserting of independence, self-sufficiency and an absolute right over one’s person – an assertion which, as a creature, is wholly unfounded and illegitimate.

Having said that, it is not a leap to move to the next observation and say that sin is, in essence, self-deification. The only one who has the right over our lives, the right to define our morals, the right to dispose of us as He wills, and the right to rein us in according as He desires, is God. By rejecting His parameters, we are attempting to ungod God and place ourselves on His throne.

The enmity against God which Romans 8:7-8 speaks of is nowhere more evident than in the way in which it is not evident to most people. Think of every novel you’ve read, every TV show you’ve watched, and every movie you’ve seen over the past 2 decades. Now ask yourself if, in the world in which those characters lived – if there was a God. Was that world a reflection of the one which God created? And did His existence, or non-existence, make any difference? The obvious negative response to that question proves, in one way, how deep, permeating and pervasive sin is. We are quite comfortable living in a world without God, because His absence relieves us of any moral and/or ethical duties or accountability.

Next, we look at the State of Sin. In what does the State of sin consist? We might list 5 (or 6, depending on how you count them) features of the State of sin.

The 1st is Condemnation. As guilty sinners, we all stand liable to the just condemnation of God. No amount of wishful thinking can negate that fact. Lose yourself in all the hedonism you can dream up, devote yourself to all the philanthropy in the world, fill your life with every possible time-consuming activity you can cram into your day, so as to distract yourself from the truth – this fact will remain as rock-steady and rock-solid as ever: You are a guilty sinner, condemned before the tribunal of God’s Law.

The 2nd is Defilement. This, my friends, is what is behind all of the ceremonial laws regarding food and cleanness which we find in Leviticus. God intends to drive into our thick skulls just how sinful we really are. Everything we touch, we pollute with sin. The dietary code of the OT and the various other laws relating to cleanness were not intended as methods of attaining righteousness before God. They were intended to show how hopeless the attaining of righteousness is apart from God’s imputing it to us. We can’t even eat without sinning. Think also of the commands against the heathen immorality of the Canaanites. Doesn’t the very fact that God had to expressly and explicitly forbid HIS OWN PEOPLE from committing the same vile, degenerate, immoral practices of the pagan Canaanites tell us something about our own hearts? – even us who have been, like Israel of old, called into relationship with God?

Next is Depravity. We must now say something about the doctrine of Total Depravity. You may have heard Total Depravity defined or explained in words such as these: Total Depravity does not mean that we are all as bad as we can be, but it does mean that we are all as bad off as we can be. Now, while there is an appearance of truth or correctness to that statement, I’m of the opinion that it is a very misleading presentation of the doctrine. It appears to me that the 2 sides of that statement have no actual correspondence to each other. It’s a bit like saying, “Roses are red because violets are blue.” One side of that sentence does not explain the other side.

Not only that, but it leads us to the erroneous position that depravity is measured by the number of sins one has committed and/or the egregiousness of those sins. I hope you can follow my argument and I’m going to do my best to make my meaning and my concern clear. Total Depravity is the sinful condition of my nature. It is intensive as well as extensive. Every facet of my being is affected: my mind, my will, my heart. In short, every aspect of my human nature has been infected, polluted, defiled and depraved. Therefore, depravity is not measured by which sins I do or do not commit. Your depravity and my depravity is not any less because we have not committed murder, arson, rape or armed robbery. Your depravity and my depravity would not be any greater had we committed the aforementioned sins.

Sometimes Total Depravity is described by theologians as an absolute Inability to do anything tending to our own salvation. This is true. Scripture describes us (Eph. 2:1) as dead in sins. 1 Cor. 2:14 informs us that, apart from the quickening work of God’s Spirit in regeneration, there is no possibility of us ever doing the least spiritual act. Faith and repentance are spiritual acts. Unless God sovereignly regenerates us by His Spirit, we have neither ability, nor any desire whatsoever to do anything truly spiritual. The Heidelberg Catechism describes our sinful nature as one of being “prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.”

Fourthly, Sin is a State of liability to Wrath. God is rightly wrathful against every and all sin. As long as one persists impenitent in a state of sin, he/she is subject, and justly so, to the full, eternal, infinite wrath of God. It cannot be otherwise.

Finally, sin is a State of Death. We touched on this earlier. According to Ephesians 2:1-2, prior to regeneration, our natural condition is one of death in sin. In Chapter 30 of his deservedly-famous Enchiridion, Augustin writes “[I]t was by the evil use of his will that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so, when man by his own will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.” The whole gist of Augustin’s thought in this regard is that the only freedom the unregenerate have is the freedom to sin – if that can be called by so noble a name as “Freedom.”


  1. On Total Depravity - I generally agree with the premise of your disagreement, but I also see it as a distinction between the overt sins and our spiritual condition. I would exp0ect you cover that in the TD topic in another post. What I see in the church because of the current definition it has become a individuals judgment on "better" relative unrighteousness based on the "You are not as bad as Hitler" statement by pastors like RC Sproul. This hits to overt side of sin and depravity but totally misses the spiritual side that is as bad as it can be as it is described as the person having "no good thing". And this goodness is not relative but absolute.
    Thanks for the post(s)!


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