Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was fond of saying that the Christian doctrine of sin is the most empirical of all doctrines. The reality of sin needs no proof. It is demonstrated again and again in our human experience: we both sin against others and are sinned against.
But what is sin essentially? And what is its source or origin? its symptoms? What is meant by original sin? This article will attempt to answer some of these questions from the perspective of the Bible and historical theology, the latter including especially Anabaptism.
In the Old Testament there are several word clusters which refer to sin. The predominant word is chattath, which means to miss the mark (Exodus 32:30). Perhaps a more fundamental root word for developing a biblical view of sin, however, is that of peshar, which means rebellion (Isaiah 43:27). Another somewhat common Hebrew word for sin is ayin, implying a state of guilt or corruption attendant with sin (Jeremiah 30:14-15).
A word study on sin does not probe the depths of the Old Testament's understanding. Indeed, the story of the Fall of humankind (Genesis 3) attempts to give a narrative account of the origin of sin in human experience without even using the word "sin." According to this account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, sin is prototypically at one and the same time rebellion against the will of God and a breech in relationship with God.
Sin, then, represents both a turning away from covenant relationship with God and a turning to other gods (idolatry). The other gods can either be religious (pagan gods or occultism, Isaiah 2:6ff.) or they can be political (human rulers or military might, Hosea 14:3).
The prophet Jeremiah presages the New Testament in looking inward for the source of sin and evil: an evil or corrupted heart is the cause of willful acts of disobedience against God (11:8). And whereas the Mosaic law had said the consequences of sin would be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations (Exodus 20:5), Ezekiel clarified that the guilt of sin rests with the perpetrator: "The soul that sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20).
The key words for the concept of sin in the New Testament are hamartolos ("sinners"), hamartano (to miss the mark) and hamartia (sin). In Jesus' context the "sinners" were the godless, those who were disobedient to the law (e.g., the publicans, Luke 7:37), those who didn't hold to the Pharisaic interpretation of the law, the heathen and those separated from God.
Jesus seems not to have rejected these distinctions between the righteous and the sinners, but he did reject the idea that sinners are a unique class of people. In fact, Jesus gave an ironic twist to these distinctions: it was the so-called "righteous" who were the most corrupted by sin (Matthew 23:27-28); and it was for the "sinners" that Jesus gave his life (Matthew 9:10-13).
Like Jeremiah before him, Jesus was not merely concerned with outward acts (either of righteousness or of sin), but was also concerned with an inward attitude, disposition, or motivation (Mark 7:6-8). Not only is murder wrong but the anger which motivates it (Matthew 5:21ff); adultery alone is not at fault but the lust which drives it (Matthew 5:27ff.).
Unlike modern-day evangelists, Jesus neither encouraged people to wallow in the guilt of their sin nor to resort to self-condemnation on the basis of their sin. He called them rather to repent of (turn from) their sin and follow him (discipleship, Mark 1:14ff ).
For the apostle Paul, sin appears to be a supra-personal (cosmic) force which nevertheless holds power over persons and enslaves them (Romans 5:12; 6;12, 17, 20, 7:14, 23). This force he refers to as "flesh," which is not to be associated with the physical body but rather is to be contrasted with the spirit of God against which the flesh contends. The result of sin for Paul is death -- spiritual and physical (Romans 6:23; 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:56) -- both of which entered human experience through the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12-14).
Sin is not the final word for Paul. The keys are that Jesus dies for our sins (Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3) and that through the Spirit we are able to overcome the power of sin. The law convicts us of our sin -- that is, shows us what sin is (Romans 3:20; 7:7). But because of the seductiveness of the flesh the law incites us to sin (Romans 7:5). It is only in the power of the resurrection and the indwelling of the Spirit that one can be rescued from the flesh which enslaves and the law which condemns (Romans 8:1-17; Galatians 5:16-26).
In John's gospel sin is portrayed as a quality of life expressed in word, deed, and thought (John 8:21 24, 34). As in Paul there is a dualism involving the forces of good and evil. John uses different terminology to describe this dualism -- not spirit-flesh but light-darkness (1:4-9). More explicitly than other New Testament writers, John links sin with the Devil (8:34, 44; cf. 1 John 3:8). It was Jesus' mission to destroy the works of the Devil, however, and to take away sins (1 John 3:5-9). At the heart of sin is lack of faith in Jesus Christ (John 16:8f.; 15:22, 24).
"World" (cosmos) is used in a twofold sense in John. First, it was through Christ that the world was created (1:10) and it was for the world that Jesus gave himself (3:16-17). Second, the world has come under the sway of the Evil One and as such opposes God (8:23) and is the source of persecution of Jesus and his disciples (15:18-20). Jesus' own death and resurrection are portrayed as a struggle against the world as enslaved by the devil and an overcoming of the world (16:33).
In his first epistle, John does talk about sin as transgression, lawlessness, and unrighteousness (1:9; 3:4; 5:17). In this context, however, he was addressing a believing community both to counteract the notion that believers could not sin and to confess that Jesus forgives and overcomes sin. Oftentimes Christians have associated sin with this narrower sense of transgression against God's law, rather than seeing it in the deeper biblical sense of yielding to and being enslaved by the forces of evil.
Throughout the first several centuries of the Christian church there was earnest teaching about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Indeed, some would later accuse the early church of moralism, that is, a doctrine of salvation by human works. Generally the early church believed in the freedom of the will, that is, the ability of humans to choose between and do either good or evil.
Some of the early church theologians could somewhat naively perceive sin to be ignorance about what is good and right, the antidote of which is correct teaching and training. Irenaeus, for example, could explain the sin of Adam and Eve as childlike immaturity. The whole purpose of both creation and redemption is to bring human beings to the level of spiritual and moral maturity which God intends for them.
By the time Christianity was legitimized by the state during the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-37), however, the problem of the church was not moralism but rather moral laxness. Not only the common Christians but also many leaders in the church lived carnal lives. Except for a few ascetics, there was not much emphasis on the teachings of Jesus or on discipleship. It is in this context, then, that the debates between Pelagius and Augustine (d. 430) must be understood.
Pelagius, a 5th-century British monk, was concerned about the breakdown in the moral quality of the church. In part, he blamed this on some of the teachings of his contemporaries, including Augustine. He reacted, for example, to a famous line from Augustine's Confessions: "Thou commandest continence; grant what Thou commandest and command what thou wilt." This, he thought, amounted to a lack of moral responsibility (what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace" in the 20th century).
Pelagius was also concerned about an influx of pessimism into Christian theology which be attributed to the influence of the dualistic religion of Manichaeism, popular at the time. (Augustine himself was a Manichee before becoming Christian.) One source of this pessimism was a commentary on Paul's epistles attributed to Ambrose (a bishop who was instrumental in Augustine's conversion). One of the problem spots, said Pelagius, was the comment on Romans 5:12 which maintained that: "in Adam all sinned as in a lump"; that human souls were derived from parents like bodies; and that thereby sin was transmitted.
Pelagius responded with his own commentary on Pauline epistles. He asserted that there is no hereditary transmission of sin through reproduction but that rather we voluntarily sin by following Adam's example. True, we are corrupted by a sinful environment and increasingly our sinful decisions weaken our will; but we don't come into the world inherently sinful.
It was important to Pelagius to assert that both in doing good as well as in sinning personal assent is involved. He maintained that newborn babies were without evil -- though he didn't reject infant baptism -- and that Adam didn't become a mortal, he was created that way. Pelagius was misrepresented in the ensuing controversy, perhaps most of all by one of his overly-zealous disciples, Celestius. It was said of Pelagius that he denied the need for grace. Yet for Pelagius forgiveness was unmerited favor (grace, in other words). Furthermore, grace for him was divine aid for doing the good which comes through moral exhortation and the example of Christ. Pelagius himself was condemned at several church councils.
Augustine attempted to clarify his own position on human nature and grace in response to Pelagius and his followers. He based his thoughts on a Latin translation of Romans 5:12 which said "the entire race fell with Adam." The conclusion which he reached from this was that sin was hereditary and that its transmission was associated with sexual reproduction. Hence, Augustine could say that virginity was a higher ideal than marriage and that sex even within marriage is tainted by concupiscence (desire or appetite of the lower nature).
Augustine assumed the propriety of infant baptism and concluded from it that babies are polluted by sin, since they couldn't have committed actual sin. They have a sinful nature from birth, in other words, for which they receive remission of sins through baptism. (He said that unbaptized infants receive only a mild form of damnation, however, if they die in infancy -- they eternally are in a state of "limbo.") Humankind is really by nature collectively sinful; the so-called good acts of pagans are actually sinful. Without redeeming grace no one is capable of acts of pure will.
It would be justice if all of us were to be condemned to hell, according to Augustine; but God in his mercy elected to save a substantial minority by a decree of predestination. If you think that is not justice, think of the guilt attached to original and actual sin. None deserves unmerited favor. This unconditional grace is irresistible. Since men and women are so corrupt they cannot will the good, grace must do it; further, if grace were not irresistible, God's decree of predestination would be thwarted. Verification of this operation of grace within a person is through consistent goodness of character to a "final perseverance" which is also a gift of God, not a matter of merit.
In sum, Augustine's position on sin and grace was: (a) The acknowledgement that we are dependent upon God for our creation leads to the acknowledgement that we are dependent upon God for our redemption. (b) He could not conceive of a free will and a natural delight in the good (after the Fall), nor could he conceive of achieving the good even if humans delighted in it. The good can come about only through the Holy Spirit's empowerment. (c) Nature and will are not separate for Augustine. All expressions of the will are really expressions of human nature which is sinful. (d) His psychological realism prevented him from perceiving simple choices between the good and the evil; all our decisions are tainted by mixed motives and sinful desires. (e) Freedom means power to choose and do good but this is the very power which humanity lacks because of its fallen nature.
It must be added that Augustine definitely did not want to attribute any kind of ultimate status to evil. In raising the question as to what the nature of evil is, he would want to say that it has no status of its own -- i.e., it hasn't the status of ultimate reality; rather, evil is the privation of the good, or a falling away from the good, or an inordinate desire for the (relative) good (not the ultimate Good). God is a good God, and evil cannot be attributed to God. Also, God's creation was good, and evil cannot be attributed to some flaw in creation. (Here Augustine is breaking away from Platonic and Manichaeistic dualisms which claim that matter is evil.)
So whence comes evil? It came from a misuse of the freedom of the will on that part of our first parents. As he said in his Confessions, "To climb against [God] was your [i.e., Adam and Eyes] fall." Thenceforward none of their progeny has the freedom to choose between good and evil; all of us were born with the propensity to sin subsequent to their sin. Before the fall Adam and Eve had the power to not sin; after the Fall all humans have not the power to not sin; only in the next life will we not have the power to sin: posse non peccare, non posse non peccare, non posse peccare.
It can be said in many respects that the Reformation was actually a revival of Augustinianism, especially Augustine's understanding of human nature, the bondage of the will and predestination. (Luther had been a monk in the Augustinian order.) In the Middle Ages a distinction was made between the image and likeness of human beings (Genesis 1:26). The image had to do with the natural endowment of reason and will which humans have; likeness, on the other hand, referred to moral (or supernatural) characteristics which were given to humans when first created but were then lost due to sin, although the image remained intact. Only by divine grace can the likeness be restored.
This led to the two-story theology of Thomas Aquinas, the first story based upon reason and leading to a natural knowledge of God and the second story based upon supernatural revelation which resulted in knowledge of a specific Christian and salvific nature.
Luther rejected a distinction between image and likeness. He understood the image and likeness to be what is called Hebrew parallelism -- they are synonyms with the same referent. But while he added this corrective to the interpretation of Genesis 1:26, he made another kind of assumption which the text itself does not: for Luther not only is the likeness corrupted by the fall but also the image. This is called total depravity.
Luther could say that there are relics of the image left; e.g., Genesis 9:6 seems to imply that the image is still intact even after the fall. But Luther understood that to mean that the divine intention for the imago dei in humankind is still there but it is not actually in human beings.
Calvin also rejected the distinction between image and likeness, and saw that both were corrupted with the fall. He was more optimistic about remnants of the imago dei, however. For this reason he could say that self-knowledge and knowledge of God are interrelated. True knowledge of self will lead to knowledge of God since we are created in the image of God and that image has specifically to do with the faculty of knowledge or reason. However, this true self-knowledge which leads to knowledge of God will show us to be corrupt and sinful in the light of knowledge of God who is holy.
The will was the dominant human faculty in mainline Protestant's understanding of sin and human nature. The will, being corrupted by sin, could not will the good nor turn to God even if one wished to with the emotions or knew that one should with the reason. That could come about only through God's "irresistible grace."
In the development of his doctrine of predestination Calvin said that it was by eternal decree that God had willed that some should be saved and others condemned. Here he goes beyond Augustine (as well as Luther). Augustine wouldn't have said that God actively predestined some to eternal damnation; rather he said that those who were condemned were simply passed over; they were left to stew in their juices and they thereby got what all humans rightly deserve. But Calvin went that further step to say that God actually decreed that some would be saved and others damned. (That is why this is called the doctrine of "double predestination.")
The Anabaptists were in agreement with the mainline reformers that before the Fall humankind was in a state of blessedness with the ability to choose between good and evil. In what God had created there was no evil. They believed that through Adam's sin the whole human race had fallen into a state of corruption and condemnation. Thenceforth, human nature was corrupted by sin.
Where the Anabaptists differed with the mainline reformers was in the extent of the Fall's effects, especially with regard to the divine image in human beings. For many of the Anabaptists there was a remaining vestige of the divine image in human beings after the fall. It was through this vestige of the divine image that God could appeal to human beings to turn from sin and turn to Christ for their redemption.
There were, of course, differences between the Anabaptists themselves. There were four different understandings of what original sin was: "It is described as inborn incurable sickness, as the loss of the power to distinguish between good and evil, as a poison which has wrought a corruption within a nature originally good, and as the mature man which over-extends itself into the realm of the supernatural" (Beachy, 38).
The Anabaptists also rejected the idea of the bondage of the will and predestination. Predestination seemed to them to suggest that God was the source of evil. The bondage of the will seemed to suggest that human beings are excused from making a decision for faith in Jesus Christ and a life of discipleship. They believed in the freedom of the will though not in the Pelagian sense; rather, it was their view that with the aid of divine grace the tendency toward evil in humans could be overcome. "Without this freedom of the will discipleship, the heart of Anabaptism, loses its meaning" (Friedmann, 207).
The Anabaptists did not deny the reality of sin nor did they even deny the inheritance of a tendency to sin from our first parents. But they did not accept this tendency toward sinning as being an inevitable fate. A favorite passage was Ezekiel 18:4, 20: "The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (v. 20).
The Anabaptists made a distinction between two problems: that of the problem of original sin as it affects infants who do not yet know the difference between good and evil; and the problem with original sin in adults (either before or after conversion). They universally rejected the Roman Catholic notion that infant baptism was a necessary sacrament to take care of the effects of original sin and to assure that an infant would not be damned. They believed that the wages of sin is death, physical death, but this did not mean for them eternal death or condemnation on account of the death of Christ which reconciles God and humanity. They further believed that Christ's death was efficacious for those who do not yet know the difference between good and evil -- infants and children.
Some Anabaptists drew an interesting parallel between the unrighteousness of Adam and the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of Christ is of no avail to anyone unless it is appropriated through faith; likewise, the sin of Adam does not impair one except through that person choosing to make it a part of his own being. "For, as foreign righteousness does not save anybody so will foreign sin not condemn anybody either" (Friedmann, p. 210).
The backside of this argument is that if Adam's sin would condemn all because all share inherently in his sinful nature, then it would necessarily follow that Christ's righteousness would also save everyone also apart from faith. Here is an implicit argument against universalism -- or the universal conferring of sin from Adam and righteousness from Christ. What condemns people is choosing to live in the sin of Adam and bearing, therefore, the fruits of sharing in the Adamic nature.
Another key for the Anabaptist understanding of sin has to do with their belief in the possibility of rebirth or spiritual transformation in which the natural person is transformed into a spiritual person. This is in contrast to Luther's understanding of the status of the justified person as being simul justus et peccator (at once righteous and a sinner). On the basis of faith in the grace of Jesus Christ the believer is deemed righteous, according to Luther, but on the basis of his own nature and deeds he is a sinner.
For the Anabaptists, however, justification does not only change a person's standing before God in a legal sense but also brings about a change within the person in a moral sense. In Pauline terms, it can be said that the mainline reformers tended to emphasize Paul's comment in Romans 7:18, "For I know that nothing good dwells within me," whereas the Anabaptist emphasis would be accounted for by Paul's teaching on death to sin and new life in the spirit (Romans 8).
This is not to suggest that there is still not a struggle between the two natures or that the individual cannot backslide into the old nature. They did not deny the power or presence of sin in believers and were fully cognizant of the temptations of sin. This was partly due to the fact that they acknowledged the radical dualism of the New Testament (between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of earth; or between the powers of light and darkness or spirit and the flesh). It was only against this radical dualism that the idea of conversion or spiritual rebirth made any sense at all.
(1) Sin, though it does not have ultimate reality, is nevertheless a phenomenon which must be reckoned with. The cross is both because of our sins and for our sins; no theology of the cross can take lightly the possibility nor the consequences of sin. The cross, in other words, is an indication of the depths to which men and women had fallen in their sin; but the cross was also an indication of the seriousness with which God takes sin and the extent to which God is willing to do something about it.
(2) Sin is a phenomenon which has more than individual dimensions or consequences; there is also a corporate and systemic dimension which must be reckoned with. This may be one of the weaknesses of the Anabaptist perspective built upon Ezekiel 18 and their reading of Romans 5:12. Even though they understood the corporate dimension of God's redemptive project through their doctrine of the church, sin was interpreted too much as a voluntary and willful act of the individual. Some emphases in contemporary biblical scholarship and theology can ameliorate this tendency such as: (a) Another reading of Romans 5:12 which interprets sin as not being transmitted from generation to generation through procreation or physical means but rather interprets Adam in terms of the Hebrew concept of corporate personality: what Adam does is representative of us all -- the whole human family chooses to use its freedom in willful disobedience against God. Sin, therefore has social and environmental implications. Sin is not simply transmitted from generations but because of sin there is a social environment in which we are conditioned towards sin. (b) An understanding of the principalities and powers as being overcome by evil and that therefore there are forces beyond our immediate control with which we must contend (Ephesians 6:12; cf. Colossians 1:16; Romans 8:28). Sin must be understood in part as being in collusion with or in bondage to these evil principalities. (c) The Social Gospel, which helped to bring to forefront the social and cultural aspects of sin (and the heirs of the Social Gospel -- feminist and liberation theologies). With the insights gained through these various contemporary understandings, a doctrine of sin needs to be understood in a dialectic framework between the individual and the corporate or the structural. On the one hand it is individuals who create the environment in which we live -- human culture and society. On the other, once that environment is created, it turns around and shapes us as individuals. Due to the sin of our forebears and our own, our environment conditions us towards sin against others, God and ourselves. Salvation, then, cannot merely be the saving of individual souls nor even simply the rescuing of individuals from a sinful environment but it must also include the shaping of a new environment which conditions people toward the will of God and righteousness. Here is where sin, salvation and the church intersect.
(3) Sin takes different forms, and we must be attentive to those different forms, not viewing it in monolithic terms. Sin is not merely pride (hubris) as it has been defined or understood in much of Western thought nor is it simply sensuousness or evil desire as in eastern thought. A corollary to an understanding of sin as multi-formed is that salvation must be viewed as multi-formed; that is, the gospel too comes to people in different forms. Salvation addresses the particular sins of an individual or people or culture.
We might generally speak of two categories of sin (following Kierkegaard): sins of infinitude and sins of finitude. Sins of infinitude are those in which an individual or a people try to make of themselves more than they were intended to be -- they try to be as gods. Sins of finitude, then, are the converse: those in which individuals or a people do not claim their rightful place in God's creation -- as persons created in God's image, beings just a little lower than the angels who are charged with the stewardship of this earth and of their own endowments (giftedness).
(4) There is forgiveness for our sins but grace does not treat merely the symptoms of human sin it also treats the cause. Grace is more than pardon for human sins and shortcomings; grace also is transformative, recreative power. Popular Protestant understandings of sin and grace tend toward a never ending cul de sac of grace: we sin, we ask forgiveness of God, God forgives. Sin, however, is not the last word where God's grace and Spirit are active. Regeneration and new life in Christ are possible (2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Ephesians 2:8-10, esp. v. 10).
See also Original Sin
Beachy, Alvin J. The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation. Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1977: ch. 2.
Dyck, C. J., ed., A Legacy of Faith. Newton, KS 1962: 87ff.
Finger, Thomas N. Christian Theology: an Eschatological Perspective, vol. 2. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989: ch. 6.
Finger, Thomas N. and Willard Swartley. "Bondage and Deliverance: Biblical and Theological Perspectives." in Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance, ed. Willard Swartley, Occasional Papers, 11. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988: 10-38.
Friedmann, Robert. "The Doctrine of Original Sin as Held by the Anabaptists of the 16th Century." Mennonite Quarterly Review 33 (1959): 206-14.
Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation (CRR), vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: ch. 2.
Weingart, Richard E. "The Meaning of Sin in the Theology of Menno Simons." Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1967): 25-39.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 821-825. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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