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II. The Essential Character of Sin

Sin is one of the saddest but also one of the most common phenomena of human life. It is a part of the common experience of mankind, and therefore forces itself upon the attention of all those who do not deliberately close their eyes to the realities of human life. Some may for a time dream of the essential goodness of man and speak indulgently of those separate words and actions that do not measure up to the ethical standards of good society as mere foibles and weaknesses, for which man is not responsible, and which readily yield to corrective measures; but as time goes on, and all measures of external reform fail, and the suppression of one evil merely serves to release another, such persons are inevitably disillusioned. They become conscious of the fact that they have merely been fighting the symptoms of some deep-seated malady, and that they are confronted, not merely with the problem of sins, that is, of separate sinful deeds, but with the much greater and deeper problem of sin. of an evil that is inherent in human nature. This is exactly what we are beginning to witness at the present time. Many Modernists at present do not hesitate to say that the doctrine of Rousseau respecting the inherent goodness of man has proved to be one of the most pernicious teachings of the Enlightenment, and now call for a greater measure of realism in the recognition of sin Thus Walter Horton, who pleads for a realistic theology and believes that this calls for the acceptance of some Marxian principles, says: "I believe that orthodox Christianity represents a profound insight into the whole human predicament. I believe that the basic human difficulty is that perversion of the will, that betrayal of divine trust, which is called sin; and I believe that sin is in a sense a racial disease, transmissible from generation to generation In affirming these things the Christian Fathers and the Protestant Reformers spoke as realists, and could have assembled masses of empirical evidence to support their views."3737Realistic Theology, p. 56 In view of the fact that sin is real and that no man can get away from it in this present life, it is no wonder that philosophers as well as theologians undertook to grapple with the problem of sin, though in philosophy it is known as the problem of evil rather than as the problem of sin. We shall briefly consider some of the most important philosophical theories of evil before we state the Scriptural doctrine of sin.


1. THE DUALISTIC THEORY. This is one of the views that were current in Greek philosophy. In the form of Gnosticism it found entrance into the early Church. It assumes the existence of an eternal principle of evil, and holds that in man the spirit represents the principle of good, and the body, that of evil. It is objectionable for several reasons: (a) The position is philosophically untenable, that there is something outside of God that is eternal and independent of His will. (b) This theory robs sin of its ethical character by making it something purely physical and independent of the human will, and thereby really destroys the idea of sin. (c) It also does away with the responsibility of man by representing sin as a physical necessity. The only escape from sin lies in deliverance from the body.

2. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS MERELY PRIVATION. According to Leibnitz the present world is the best possible one. The existence of sin in it must be considered as unavoidable. It cannot be referred to the agency of God, and therefore must be regarded as a simple negation or privation, for which no efficient cause is needed. The limitations of the creature render it unavoidable. This theory makes sin a necessary evil, since creatures are necessarily limited, and sin is an unavoidable consequence of this limitation. Its attempt to avoid making God the author of sin is not successful, for even if sin is a mere negation requiring no efficient cause, God is nevertheless the author of the limitation from which it results. Moreover, it tends to obliterate the distinction between moral and physical evil, since it represents sin as little more than a misfortune which has befallen man. Consequently, it has a tendency to blunt man's sense of the evil or pollution of sin, to destroy the sense of guilt, and to abrogate man's moral responsibility.

3. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS AN ILLUSION. For Spinoza, as for Leibnitz, sin is simply a defect, a limitation of which man is conscious; but while Leibnitz regards the notion of evil, arising from this limitation, as necessary, Spinoza holds that the resulting consciousness of sin is simply due to the inadequacy of man's knowledge, which fails to see everything sub specie aeternitatis, that is, in unity with the eternal and infinite essence of God. If man's knowledge were adequate, so that he saw everything in God, he would have no conception of sin; it would simply be non-existent for him. But this theory, representing sin as something purely negative, does not account for its terrible positive results, to which the universal experience of mankind testifies in the most convincing manner. Consistently carried through, it abrogates all ethical distinctions, and reduces such concepts as "moral character" and "moral conduct" to meaningless phrases. In fact, it reduces the whole life of man to an illusion: his knowledge, his experience, the testimony of conscience, and so on, for all his knowledge is inadequate. Moreover, it goes contrary to the experience of mankind, that the greatest intellects are often the greatest sinners, Satan being the greatest of all.

4. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS A WANT OF GOD-CONSCIOUSNESS, DUE TO MAN'S SENSUOUS NATURE. This is the view of Schleiermacher. According to him man's consciousness of sin is dependent on his God-consciousness. When the sense of God awakens in man, he is at once conscious of the opposition of his lower nature to it. This opposition follows from the very constitution of his being, from his sensuous nature, from the soul's connection with a physical organism. It is therefore an inherent imperfection, but one which man feels as sin and guilt. Yet this does not make God the author of sin, since man wrongly conceives of this imperfection as sin. Sin has no objective existence, but exists only in man's consciousness. But this theory makes man constitutionally evil. The evil was present in man even in his original state, when the God-consciousness was not sufficiently strong to control the sensuous nature of man. It is in flagrant opposition to Scripture, when it holds that man wrongly adjudges this evil to be sin, and thus makes sin and guilt purely subjective. And though Schleiermacher wishes to avoid this conclusion, it does make God the responsible author of sin, for He is the creator of man's sensuous nature. It also rests upon an incomplete induction of facts, since it fails to take account of the fact that many of the most hateful sins of man do not pertain to his physical but to his spiritual nature, such as avarice, envy, pride, malice, and others. Moreover, it leads to the most absurd conclusions as, for instance, that asceticism, by weakening the sensuous nature, necessarily weakens the power of sin; that man becomes less sinful as his senses fail with age; that death is the only redeemer; and that disembodied spirits, including the devil himself, have no sin.

5. THE THEORY OF SIN AS WANT OF TRUST IN GOD AND OPPOSITION TO HIS KINGDOM, DUE TO IGNORANCE. Like Schleiermacher, Ritschl too stresses the fact that sin is understood only from the standpoint of the Christian consciousness. They who are outside of the pale of the Christian religion, and they who are still strangers to the experience of redemption, have no knowledge of it. Under the influence of the redemptive work of God man becomes conscious of his lack of trust in God and of his opposition to the Kingdom of God, which is the highest good. Sin is not determined by man's attitude to the law of God, but by his relation to the purpose of God, to establish the Kingdom. Man imputes his failure to make the purpose of God his own to himself as guilt, but God regards it merely as ignorance, and because it is ignorance, it is pardonable. This view of Ritschl reminds us by way of contrast of the Greek dictum that knowledge is virtue. It fails completely to do justice to the Scriptural position that sin is above all transgression of the law of God, and therefore renders man guilty in the sight of God and worthy of condemnation. Moreover, the idea that sin is ignorance goes contrary to the voice of Christian experience. The man who is burdened with the sense of sin certainly does not feel that way about it. He is grateful, too, that not only the sins which he committed in ignorance are pardonable, but all the others as well, with the single exception of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

6. THE THEORY THAT SIN IS SELFISHNESS. This position is taken among others by Mueller and A. H. Strong. Some who take this position conceive of selfishness merely as the opposite of altruism or benevolence; others understand by it the choice of self rather than God as the supreme object of love. Now this theory, especially when it conceives of selfishness as a putting of self in the place of God, is by far the best of the theories named. Yet it can hardly be called satisfactory. Though all selfishness is sin, and there is an element of selfishness in all sin, it cannot be said that selfishness is the essence of sin. Sin can be properly defined only with reference to the law of God, a reference that is completely lacking in the definition under consideration. Moreover, there is a great deal of sin in which selfishness is not at all the governing principle. When a poverty-stricken father sees his wife and children pine away for lack of food, and in his desperate desire to help them finally resorts to theft, this can hardly be called pure selfishness. It may even be that the thought of self was entirely absent. Enmity to God, hardness of heart, impenitence, and unbelief, are all heinous sins, but cannot simply be qualified as selfishness. And certainly the view that all virtue is disinterestedness or benevolence, which seems to be a necessary corollary of the theory under consideration, at least in one of its forms, does not hold. An act does not cease to be virtuous, when its performance meets and satisfies some demand of our nature. Moreover, justice, fidelity, humility, forbearance, patience, and other virtues may be cultivated or practiced, not as forms of benevolence, but as virtues inherently excellent, not merely as promoting the happiness of others, but for what they are in themselves.

7. THE THEORY THAT SIN CONSISTS IN THE OPPOSITION OF THE LOWER PROPENSITIES OF HUMAN NATURE TO A GRADUALLY DEVELOPING MORAL CONSCIOUSNESS. This view was developed, as we pointed out in the preceding, by Tennant in his Hulsean Lectures. It is the doctrine of sin constructed according to the theory of evolution. Natural impulses and inherited qualities, derived from the brute, form the material of sin, but do not actually become sin until they are indulged in contrary to the gradually awakening moral sense of mankind. The theories of McDowall and Fiske move along similar lines. The theory as presented by Tennant halts somewhat between the Scriptural view of man and that presented by the theory of evolution, inclining now to the one and anon to the other side. It assumes that man had a free will even before the awakening of his moral consciousness, so that he was able to choose when he was placed before a moral ideal; but does not explain how we can conceive of a free and indeterminate will in a process of evolution. It limits sin to those transgressions of the moral law, which are committed with a clear consciousness of a moral ideal and are therefore condemned by conscience as evil. As a matter of fact, it is merely the old Pelagian view of sin grafted into the theory of evolution, and is therefore open to all the objections with which Pelagianism is burdened.

The radical defect in all these theories is that they seek to define sin without taking into consideration that sin is essentially a breaking away from God, opposition to God, and transgression of the law of God. Sin should always be defined in terms of man's relation to God and to His will as expressed in the moral law.


In giving the Scriptural idea of sin it is necessary to call attention to several particulars.

1. SIN IS A SPECIFIC KIND OF EVIL. At the present time we hear a great deal about evil, and comparatively little about sin; and this is rather misleading. Not all evil is sin. Sin should not be confused with physical evil, with that which is injurious or calamitous. It is possible to speak not only of sin but also of sickness as an evil, but then the word "evil" is used in two totally different senses. Above the physical lies the ethical sphere, in which the contrast between moral good and evil applies, and it is only in this sphere that we can speak of sin. And even in this sphere it is not desirable to substitute the word "evil" for "sin" without any further qualification, for the latter is more specific than the former. Sin is a moral evil. Most of the names that are used in Scripture to designate sin point to its moral character. Chatta'th directs attention to it as an action that misses the mark and consists in a deviation from the right way. ' Avel and 'avon indicate that it is a want of integrity and rectitude, a departure from the appointed path. Pesha' refers to it as a revolt or a refusal of subjection to rightful authority, a positive transgression of the law, and a breaking of the covenant. And resha' points to it as a wicked and guilty departure from the law. Furthermore, it is designated as guilt by 'asham, as unfaithfulness and treason, by ma'al, as vanity, by ' aven, and as perversion or distortion of nature (crookedness) by 'avah. The corresponding New Testament words, such as hamartia, adikia, parabasis, paraptoma, anomia, paranomia, and others, point to the same ideas. In view of the use of these words, and of the way in which the Bible usually speaks of sin, there can be no doubt about its ethical character. It is not a calamity that came upon man unawares, poisoned his life, and ruined his happiness, but an evil course which man has deliberately chosen to follow and which carries untold misery with it. Fundamentally, it is not something passive, such as a weakness, a fault, or an imperfection, for which we cannot be held responsible, but an active opposition to God, and a positive transgression of His law, which constitutes guilt. Sin is the result of a free but evil choice of man. This is the plain teaching of the Word of God, Gen. 3:1-6; Isa. 48:8; Rom. 1:18-32; I John 3:4. The application of the philosophy of evolution to the study of the Old Testament led some scholars to the conviction that the ethical idea of sin was not developed until the time of the prophets, but this view is not borne out by the way in which the earliest books of the Bible speak of sin.

2. SIN HAS AN ABSOLUTE CHARACTER. In the ethical sphere the contrast between good and evil is absolute. There is no neutral condition between the two. While there are undoubtedly degrees in both, there are no gradations between the good and the evil. The transition from the one to the other is not of a quantitative, but of a qualitative character. A moral being that is good does not become evil by simply diminishing his goodness, but only by a radical qualitative change, by turning to sin. Sin is not a lesser degree of goodness, but a positive evil. This is plainly taught in the Bible. He who does not love God is thereby characterized as evil. Scripture knows of no position of neutrality. It urges the wicked to turn to righteousness, and sometimes speaks of the righteous as falling into evil; but it does not contain a single indication that either the one or the other ever lands in a neutral position. Man is either on the right side or on the wrong side, Matt. 10:32,33; 12:30; Luke 11:23; Jas. 2:10.

3. SIN ALWAYS HAS RELATION TO GOD AND HIS WILL. The older dogmaticians realized that it was impossible to have a correct conception of sin without contemplating it in relation to God and His will, and therefore emphasized this aspect and usually spoke of sin as "lack of conformity to the law of God." This is undoubtedly a correct formal definition of sin. But the question arises, Just what is the material content of the law? What does it demand? If this question is answered, it will be possible to determine what sin is in a material sense. Now there is no doubt about it that the great central demand of the law is love to God. And if from the material point of view moral goodness consists in love to God, then moral evil must consist in the opposite. It is separation from God, opposition to God, hatred of God, and this manifests itself in constant transgression of the law of God in thought, word, and deed. The following passages clearly show that Scripture contemplates sin in relation to God and His law, either as written on the tablets of the heart, or as given by Moses, Rom. 1:32; 2:12-14; 4:15; Jas. 2:9; I John 3:4.

4. SIN INCLUDES BOTH GUILT AND POLLUTION. Guilt is the state of deserving condemnation or of being liable to punishment for the violation of a law or a moral requirement. It expresses the relation which sin bears to justice or to the penalty of the law. But even so the word has a twofold meaning. It may denote an inherent quality of the sinner, namely, his demerit, ill-desert, or guiltiness, which renders him worthy of punishment. Dabney speaks of this as "potential guilt." It is inseparable from sin, is never found in one who is not personally a sinner, and is permanent, so that once established, it cannot be removed by pardon. But it may also denote the obligation to satisfy justice, to pay the penalty of sin, "actual guilt," as Dabney calls it.3838Christ Our Penal Substitute, pp. 10 f. It is not inherent in man, but is the penal enactment of the lawgiver, who fixes the penalty of the guilt. It may be removed by the satisfaction of the just demands of the law personally or vicariously. While many deny that sin includes guilt, this does not comport with the fact that sin was threatened and is indeed visited with punishment, and clearly contradicts the plain statements of Scripture, Matt. 6:12; Rom. 3:19; 5:18; Eph. 2:3. By pollution we understand the inherent corruption to which every sinner is subject. This is a reality in the life of every individual. It is not conceivable without guilt, though guilt as included in a penal relationship, is conceivable without immediate pollution. Yet it is always followed by pollution. Every one who is guilty in Adam is, as a result, also born with a corrupt nature. The pollution of sin is clearly taught in such passages as Job 14:4; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 7:15-20; Rom. 8:5-8; Eph. 4:17-19.

5. SIN HAS ITS SEAT IN THE HEART. Sin does not reside in any one faculty of the soul, but in the heart, which in Scriptural psychology is the central organ of the soul, out of which are the issues of life. And from this center its influence and operations spread to the intellect, the will, the affections, in short, to the entire man, including his body. In his sinful state the whole man is the object of God's displeasure. There is a sense in which it can be said that sin originated in the will of man, but then the will does not designate some actual volition as much as it does the volitional nature of man. There was a tendency of the heart underlying the actual volition when sin entered the world. This view is in perfect harmony with the representations of Scripture in such passages as the following: Prov. 4:23; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:19,20; Luke 6:45; Heb. 3:12.

6. SIN DOES NOT CONSIST EXCLUSIVELY IN OVERT ACTS. Sin does not consist only in overt acts, but also in sinful habits and in a sinful condition of the soul. These three are related to one another as follows: The sinful state is the basis of the sinful habits, and these manifest themselves in sinful deeds. There is also truth, however, in the contention that repeated sinful deeds lead to the establishment of sinful habits. The sinful acts and dispositions of man must be referred to and find their explanation in a corrupt nature. The passages referred to in the preceding paragraph substantiate this view, for they clearly prove that the state or condition of man is thoroughly sinful. And if the question should still be raised, whether the thoughts and affections of the natural man, called "flesh" in Scripture, should be regarded as constituting sin, it might be answered by pointing to such passages as the following: Matt. 5:22,28; Rom. 7:7; Gal. 5:17,24, and others. In conclusion it may be said that sin may be defined as lack of conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state.


The Pelagian view of sin is quite different from that presented above. The only point of similarity lies in this that the Pelagian also considers sin in relation to the law of God, and regards it as a transgression of the law. But in all other particulars his conception differs widely from the Scriptural and Augustinian view.

1. STATEMENT OF THE PELAGIAN VIEW. Pelagius takes his startingpoint in the natural ability of man. His fundamental proposition is: God has commanded man to do that which is good; hence the latter must have the ability to do it. This means that man has a free will in the absolute sense of the word, so that it is possible for him to decide for or against that which is good, and also to do the good as well as the evil. The decision is not dependent on any moral character in man, for the will is entirely indeterminate. Whether a man will do good or evil simply depends on his free and independent will. From this it follows, of course, that there is no such thing as a moral development of the individual. Good and evil are located in the separate actions of man. From this fundamental position the doctrinal teaching of Pelagius respecting sin naturally follows. Sin consists only in the separate acts of the will. There is no such thing as a sinful nature, neither are there sinful dispositions. Sin is always a deliberate choice of evil by a will which is perfectly free, and can just as well choose and follow the good. But if this is so, then the conclusion inevitably follows that Adam was not created in a state of positive holiness, but in a state of moral equilibrium. His condition was one of moral neutrality. He was neither good nor bad, and therefore had no moral character; but he chose the course of evil, and thus became sinful. Inasmuch as sin consists only in separate acts of the will, the idea of its propagation by procreation is absurd. A sinful nature, if such a thing should exist, might be passed on from father to son, but sinful acts cannot be so propagated. This is in the nature of the case an impossibility. Adam was the first sinner, but his sin was in no sense passed on to his descendants. There is no such thing as original sin. Children are born in a state of neutrality, beginning exactly where Adam began, except that they are handicapped by the evil examples which they see round about them. Their future course must be determined by their own free choice. The universality of sin is admitted, because all experience testifies to it. It is due to imitation and to the habit of sinning that is gradually formed. Strictly speaking, there are, on the Pelagian standpoint, no sinners, but only separate sinful acts. This makes a religious conception of the history of the race utterly impossible.

2. OBJECTIONS TO THE PELAGIAN VIEW. There are several weighty objections to the Pelagian view of sin, of which the following are the most important:

a. The fundamental position that man is held responsible by God only for what he is able to do, is absolutely contrary to the testimony of conscience and to the Word of God. It is an undeniable fact that, as a man increases in sin, his ability to do good decreases. He becomes in an ever greater measure the slave of sin. According to the theory under consideration this would also involve a lessening of his responsibility. But this is equivalent to saying that sin itself gradually redeems its victims by relieving them of their responsibility. The more sinful a man, the less responsible he is. Against this position conscience registers a loud protest. Paul does not say that the hardened sinners, which he describes in Rom. 1:18-32 were virtually without responsibility, but regards them as worthy of death. Jesus said of the wicked Jews who gloried in their freedom, but manifested their extreme wickedness by seeking to kill Him, that they were bond- servants of sin, did not understand His speech, because they could not hear His word, and would die in their sins, John 8:21,22,34,43. Though slaves of sin, they were yet responsible.

b. To deny that man has by nature a moral character, is simply bringing him down to the level of the animal. According to this view everything in the life of man that is not a conscious choice of the will, is deprived of all moral quality. But the consciousness of men in general testifies to the fact that the contrast between good and evil also applies to man's tendencies, desires, moods, and affections, and that these also have a moral character. In Pelagianism sin and virtue are reduced to superficial appendages of man, in no way connected with his inner life. That the estimate of Scripture is quite different appears from the following passages: Jer. 17:9; Ps. 51:6,10; Matt. 15:19; Jas. 4:1,2.

c. A choice of the will that is in no way determined by man's character, is not only psychologically unthinkable, but also ethically worthless. If a good deed of man simply happens to fall out as it does, and no reason can be given why it did not turn out to be the opposite, in other words, if the deed is not an expression of man's character, it lacks all moral value. It is only as an exponent of character that a deed has the moral value that is ascribed to it.

d. The Pelagian theory can give no satisfactory account of the universality of sin. The bad example of parents and grandparents offers no real explanation. The mere abstract possibility of man's sinning, even when strengthened by the evil example, does not explain how it came to pass that all men actually sinned. How can it be accounted for that the will invariably turned in the direction of sin, and never in the opposite direction? It is far more natural to think of a general disposition to sin.


Though the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent are somewhat ambigious in the doctrine of sin, the prevailing Roman Catholic view of sin may be expressed as follows: Real sin always consists in a conscious act of the will. It is true that the dispositions and habits that are not in accord with the will of God, are of a sinful character; yet they cannot be called sins in the strict sense of the word. The indwelling concupiscence, which lies back of sin, gained the upper hand in man in paradise, and thus precipitated the loss of the donum superadditum of original righteousness, cannot be regarded as sin, but only as the fomes or fuel of sin. The sinfulness of Adam's descendants is primarily only a negative condition, consisting in the absence of something that ought to be present, that is, of original righteousness, which is not essential to human nature. Something essential is wanting only if, as some hold, the justitia naturalis was also lost.

The objections to this view are perfectly evident from what was said in connection with the Pelagian theory. A bare reminder of them would seem to be quite sufficient. In so far as it holds that real sin consists only in a deliberate choice of the will and in overt acts, the objections raised against Pelagianism are pertinent. The idea that original righteousness was supernaturally added to man's natural constitution, and that its loss did not detract from human nature, is an un-Scriptural idea, as was pointed out in our discussion of the image of God in man. According to the Bible concupiscence is sin, real sin, and the root of many sinful actions. This was brought out when the Biblical view of sin was considered.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. Has philosophy succeeded in explaining the origin of sin? Does Scripture bear out the view that sin originally had no ethical quality? What objection is there to the view that sin is mere privation? Must we conceive of sin as a substance? With whose name is this view associated? Does this sin exist apart from the sinner? How can we prove that sin must always be judged by the law of God? Did Paul favor the old Greek dualism, when he spoke of "the body of sin" and used the term "flesh" to denote man's sinful nature? Is the present tendency to speak of 'evil' ratherthan of 'sin' commendable? What is meant by the social interpretation of sin? Does this recognize sin for what it is fundamentally?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 121-158; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Peccato, pp. 27-35; Hodge, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 130-192; Vos, Geref. Dogm, II, pp. 21-32; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 306-317; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 257-264; Pope, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 29-42; Orchard, Modern Theories of Sin; Moxon, The Doctrine of Sin; Alexander, Syst. of Bibl. Theol. I. pp. 232-265; Brown, Chr. Theol. in Outline, pp. 261-282; Clarke, An Outline of Chr. Theol. pp. 227-239; Orr, God's Image in Man pp. 197-246; Mackintosh, Christianity and Sin, cf. Index; Candlish, The Bibl. Doct. of Sin. pp. 31-44; Talma, De Anthropologie van Calvijn, pp. 92-117; Tennant, The Concept of Sin.

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