THE PROBLEM OF MAN'S SIN
The problem of man's sin, which is only part of the wider problem of evil, is
one which all thoughtful minds have had to confront, for whoever
sets himself seriously to explain the scheme of existence is
compelled to make room for this tragic element.
As Dr. W. N. Clarke points out that sin is essentially a religious term. The
moralist speaks of vice -- that which corrupts and defies the law of
being; the law is familiar with crime -- that which introduces a
disturbing element into civic and religious life; theology alone,
however, can treat of sin -- regarding the disposition of the
creature as involving a wrong attitude toward God.
The Reality and Nature of Sin
1. Sin is a Fact Which None Can Deny
Humanity' greatest difficulty is its sin. Many problems have perplexed the
race, but behind them all is this one black, basic evil.
We express no new idea when we say that, while in the field of religious
thought sin has always been regarded seriously, the Christian
emphasis has majored here. Judaism recognized its heinousness, and
by legislative enactment and sacrificial system indicated its
costliness as a barrier between the soul and God. Christianity,
however, has gone farther, regarding the extremist measures as
necessary to deal with it, namely, the death, and that in the most
tragic manner, of God's incarnate Son.
Let it be clearly understood at the beginning that sin is not to be regarded as
a calamity for which man is to be pitied, but as an offense for
which he is to be blamed. It is not to be looked upon as an
unfortunate disability to which we are liable, but as a deadly
disease, an inborn corruption, with which only divine grace can
As Dr. W. N. Clarke has so clearly pointed out, the Christian revelation
uniformly addresses man as a sinful being, represents the entire
race as involved in moral evil, and the individual as
transgressing the law he ought to obey. Moreover, what is
recognized by the Christian revelation is also acknowledged by the
common moral judgment of men. The religions of mankind have always
recognized human sinfulness; the governments of mankind have
always regarded evil as a force to be reckoned with; while
literature in general has recognized and portrayed it. What is
thus recognized in these various realms may be observed any day,
anywhere, by anyone who will use his powers of observation. One
need not be a philosopher or a theologian to recognize the fact of
2. Sin Has Been Accounted For By Some Novel Theories
In our inquiry concerning the nature of sin we find numerous definitions and
explanations. Some of these are utterly false; others are more
subtle, being partially true; while others more clearly define the
position. Of these inadequate theories, we shall mention four:
a. Sin is the great Artist's harmonization of light and shade. It is essential
to the artistic perfection of the universe. What seems to us to be
disharmony is only so because it is viewed in itself. It will
blend in perfect harmony as one grand whole when we see the
Artist's perfect picture.
We cannot believe that such a conception is worthy of a God of love. It does
not satisfy the moral demand. The sinner's conscience is a
sufficient answer here.
b. Sin is Man's reaction to external forces. Those who hold this theory
represent man as the victim of a hopeless determinism and
therefore not morally responsible. He is the creature of
Neither does such an explanation appeal to us. Again the sinner's conscience is
c. Sin is the domination of the bodily appetites over man's higher nature. It
is the maladjustment of the physical to the spiritual.
It would be useless to deny that bodily appetites are frequently the medium of
sin, so much so that the body has often been mistakenly regarded
as the seat of sin. A study of Gnosticism will shed light here.
That old Gnostic error is becoming increasingly prevalent in
modern dress today. That our physical being is the seat of sin is
not true. Our bodily appetites, as such, are no more sinful in us
than the appetites, of the human Jesus were in Him; they are
natural elements in a normal human life. Moral character inheres
not in the body of man but in the spirit.
d. Sin is incidental to the present development of the race. As such, it must
of necessity be regarded as unavoidable in each individual, and
therefore in no sense blameworthy. It is a passing phase in the
history of man, which will ultimately disappear by reason of his
progress, and therefore is his misfortune rather than his fault.
Again we say, such teaching is not true. The moral judgment of men affirms that
sin, pitiable though it may be, is not merely pitiable; it is
deserving of blame.
Other theories have been advanced, but we need not discuss them. An author of
the last century wrote as follows: "The crimes which fill us with
horror, the atrocities which stir us with indignation to the
depths, the insolence that crushes man with cold contempt, the
ambition that moves through blood to its goal and counts nothing
of the hearts it has broken, and many another form of sin familiar
to us all, is not something that can be described by pale
negatives, but something that is actively and aggressively bad."
Only fools make a mock at sin; and only false physicians treat it lightly.
Apart from a miracle, divinely wrought, the sinner is hopelessly
and irrecoverably lost.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE STUDENT
There is much more to be said on this awful fact of sin. Become further
informed on the various theories. Be prepared to state them more
fully and also to answer them.
- Why would it be true to say that, of all the sciences, theology alone can
treat of sin?
- Sin is not to be regarded simply as a calamity. Show why.
- What would be meant by an inadequate theory of sin?
- State some of these theories.
- Answer each theory you have stated.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS CONCERNING
While in our present study we may not do more than briefly sketch the thought,
a candid perusal of the Word of God, illuminated by the Holy Ghost,
can lead the student to but one conclusion, namely, that man is a
Broadly stated, the Biblical statement is twofold:
1. The Fact of the Fall
Numerous writers have pointed out that the recognition of the fact of the Fall
is not peculiar to Christianity. In one form or another each of
the great religions has recognized this awful truth. Yet the
doctrine of the Fall has a structural relation to Christianity
which it does not have to any other religion.
- a. The fact of a Fall is assumed throughout the Scriptures. Numerous references
are made to man's sinfulness as associated with the Eden
incident, among which are four outstanding passages. These may
be called key scriptures, which the student should carefully
consider. Genesis 3; Rom. 5:12-21; I Cor. 15:21-22; I Tim.
2:13-15. The first of these is the Old testament background
passage which gives the record of the fact, while the other
three are New Testament scriptures emphasizing the fact and
indicating the wider result.
- b. The record of the Fall had been given a variety of interpretations. Four of
these should be noticed:
- (1) The allegorical view. According to this theory, Adam represents the
rational part of man, Eve the sensual, and the serpent the
external excitements to evil.
- (2) The mythical view. According to this theory the Genesis record is folklore;
one of those old stories bound up with the childhood of the
race, but never, of course, intended to be taken with literal
- (3) The apocalyptic view. There are Bible students who refuse to be classed
among the former groups, yet who insist that some liberty must
be given in interpreting the early Genesis chapters. They
admit their divine inspiration, but declare that this is not
necessarily a record of fact, but rather a presentation of
truth in pictorial and poetical form; this, they insist, is
best interpreted in a similar manner to the apocalyptics of
Daniel and Revelation, the only difference being that, while
in the case of these other apocalyptic writings the vision is
forward, the Genesis apocalypse is backward, and in pictorial
form takes off the cover from the past.
- (4) The literal interpretation. The literal school is, of course,
old-fashioned, and is regarded by the modern mind as
hopelessly out-of-date. It has, however, some arguments to
which it stubbornly holds, and which its critics -- ridicule
them as they will -- find difficult successfully to refute.
Here are five:
There is no indication in the Genesis account that it is not intended to be
regarded as actual history. The Bible has within its pages
numerous styles of presented truth, but it is always served in
such a manner as to allow the reader to discern the writer's
intention. The Genesis narrative is plainly intended as history.
Further, this record is part of a historical book. Why then should it not be
regarded as being as authentic as anything else in the Book?
Moreover, there are geographical details which may be authenticated. For
example -- the rivers.
Then too, there are sad results recorded which throughout the ages have been
apparent in every generation of the human race.
Finally, and by no means of least importance, our Lord himself and later
Scripture writers are content to regard the account as
historical, as the following scriptures will show: Matt. 19:4;
Mark 10:6; II Cor. 11:3; I Tim. 2:13-15.
To accept the old view as it is often called, is not by any means to court
popularity, but it is at least to believe what God says and to
give to His Word a sane and safe interpretation.
Why should an interpretation be considered lacking in intelligence because it
is old? Moreover, we are under no obligation to prove our
position. Being the old view, as our critics scornfully admit,
it has priority until it is proved untrue. That proof has never
2. The Effect Of The Fall
In dealing with the effect of the Fall, two great facts must be noted.
- a. The effect on those who fell: The Fall in relation to the first pair. In
connection with our first parents, the results of the Fall are
not far to seek. Godward, it brought alienation, resulting in
spiritual and physical death Gen. 2:17; 3:3; 3:19; 5:5; Rom.
5:12. Selfward, it brought condemnation and corruption. The
inner nature became defiled. Gen. 3:8-11. Satanward, it
brought enslavement. From that moment onward they had sold
themselves to a subtle, cruel, crafty devil who, having
brought about their humiliation, would now seek to encompass
- b. The effect on those who followed: the Fall in relation to their posterity.
The immediate result of the Eden tragedy is seen manifested in
the descendants of the fallen pair. Now, of necessity, they
passed on to their offspring the polluted nature which had
become their own. This we now call inborn depravity, or inbred
sin. Gen. 5:3; 6:5; 8:1; Job 14:1-4; 15:14; Prov. 22:15; Jer.
17:9; Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21-23; John 3:6; Rom. 5:19; 8:5-8;
Gal. 5:17-21; Eph. 2:3.
This depravity is seen in more detailed fashion as follows: The understanding
is darkened. Eph. 4:18; I Cor. 2:14. The heart is deceitful and
desperately wicked. Jer. 17:9-10. The mind and conscience are
defiled. Gen. 6:5; Titus 1:15. The will is enslaved. Rom. 7:18.
The race is in bondage to sin, death, and the devil. John
3:31-36; Eph. 2:3; Heb. 2:14-15.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE STUDENT
Concerning the fact of the Fall, the four scripture passages here given are
basic and must be carefully considered. Ponder them well.
Concerning the record of the Fall, more material should be sought on the
various interpretations which have been advanced, and some recently
written fundamental books should be studied.
The effect of the Fall provides a wide field for study. Read further here.
- Is the Bible clear in its teaching on the fact of the Fall? If so, in what
- The record of the Fall has been given a variety of interpretations. State
these, tell which should be accepted, and why.
- What may be said to be the effects of the Fall?
SIN IN ITS DOCTRINAL DEVELOPMENT
Thus far our way has been comparatively clear, but it is at this point that we begin to find difficulty. For while men may be in general agreement as to what is written, they are frequently found to be bitterly antagonistic as to the interpretation to be placed upon it, and there is no place where this has been more manifest than on the subject of sin.
The facts of sin and redemption were acknowledged by the Church from the beginning; these facts had been plainly stated in written documents left by the apostles themselves. It soon became necessary, however, to interpret these facts, and then the real difficulty began; for in the absence of settled authority numerous opinions were expressed.
These differences of opinion resolved themselves into two main streams of thought which developed side by side, now known as the Eastern or Greek view, and the Western or Latin view.
Within each of these boundaries, the first four centuries may be regarded as formative years so far as theological thought was concerned. Numerous views were expressed, and of necessity some confusion followed.
1. The Eastern or Greek View
The line of thought developed in the Greek church was that of individual freedom. The fact of a defilement and weakness of human nature was accepted but this was not identified with sin, as it was contended that it did not involve guilt.
Corruption or bias as the result of Adam's fall was denied. A propagation of physical corruption was admitted, resulting in general mortality, but attached to it, they argued, there was no guilt.
The will was not regarded as propagated but created in each individual, and as being free and spontaneous in its action. It was regarded as taking the initiative in regeneration, but not having power in itself to complete it; therefore divine aid was considered necessary -- God's power co-operating with the human will enabling it to turn from evil to God.
2. The Western or Latin View
In the Latin church we find a distinctly opposite trend of thought. Tertullian held the soul to be matter, and insisted that the soul, like the body, was propagated, and passed from parent to child, therefore must have hereditary taint. He did not regard human corruption, however, as being so complete that no goodness at all resided in the soul, nor did he altogether deny the freedom of the will.
Ambrose went farther. He spoke of a sinful nature -- regarding sin as a state or condition -and declared that condition to be related to the Fall in which man lost the image of God. He insisted on the unity of the race, teaching that men incurred the guilt of Adam's sin because all men shared in that sin. Dealing with the subject of the will, he regarded it as weakened by the Fall, but did not consider it so corrupt that it could not by its own power turn to God.
The development of the doctrine of original sin proceeded systematically in the West -- but not in the East -- until in the West it had reached its final form in the teaching of Augustine.
As the fourth century closed, the church of the West seethed with contention. Distinct schools of thought became established and conflicts were waged which were destined to affect all succeeding generations. Pelagius and Augustine fought out their theological battle, and out of this there developed other theories which later we shall note.
a. Pelagianism. The incident which raised the storm came through a British monk named Pelagius. He had gone to Rome, but on arrival is said to have been shocked by the prevailing corruption and amazing indifference to ethical standards, even to common morality. These conditions the monk attacked, only to receive the amazing reply that these things were inevitable, our poor human nature being so weak that it could not resist the manifold temptations by which it was surrounded. This Pelagius withstood, raising such questions as the freedom of the will, the nature of sin, the problem of inherited corruption, and the value of external help to enable men to do the right.
Pelagius is said to have been a man of upright life and sincere purpose; but holding a one-sided view and exaggerated conception of the freedom of the will, he ultimately carried his teachings to much further extremes than at first he seems to have intended. Continued controversy drove him to take extreme positions:
- (1) Concerning the human will. The will Pelagius declared to be absolutely free, contending that any man, whatever his previous history, was in a position to choose between good and evil. So far as the will is concerned, he declared all men are exactly as Adam was before the Fall, having capacity for good or evil, and choosing right or wrong according to the use they make of their God given freedom.
- (2) Concerning the Fall. Adam, Pelagius declared, was created mortal, and would have died whether he had sinned or not. Adam's fall injured only himself, and not the rest of the race. Infants, he insisted, are born in the same condition as that in which Adam was before the Fall. Men do not die, he argued, on account of Adam's fall, nor will they rise again through the resurrection of Christ. Law enables them to reach heaven no less than the gospel.
Pelagianism did not deny the fact of grace, although its teaching here seems to have been ambiguous. It did, however, deny the need of prevenient grace.
b. Augustinianism. The teaching of the Augustinian school was the direct antithesis of Pelagianism. It was Augustine's reaction to what he considered the apostasy of Pelagius. His answer was threefold:
(1) Concerning sin: man is totally depraved. Human nature, declared Augustine, has within itself no capacity for God. Man, of himself, can and will perform nothing but what is bad. By the one act of Adam, sin came into the world and affected his whole posterity; the race, therefore, inherits from him an ingrained moral disease which disturbs and dislocates the whole interior being.
Through the sin of Adam, man is morally dead. Adam's fall was not the fall of one merely, but the fall of the entire race. The expression original sin was apparently coined by Augustine, and does not seem to have appeared before his day.
Concerning sin, Augustine taught three things:
- (a) The presence of evil in the human race is due to the fact of heredity. Its prevalence is not the result of imitation merely, but is due to the fact of an enfeebled and corrupted nature inherited from Adam, which has left man incapable of doing right or of making any movement by himself in the direction of salvation. This corrupted nature has passed from parent to offspring by a natural process of generation.
- (b) Original sin is identified with sexual lust. Man, according to Augustine, is not only sinful through heredity but guilty of sin by birth.
- (c) Sin is declared to be the penalty of sin. In other words, the inability to do right is a punishment for racial wrongdoing.
- (2) Concerning the will: it is fettered and bound. According to Augustine, man in his unfallen state possessed a will perfectly free; but since the Fall he has not been free to choose; he is entirely fettered and governed by sin.
- (3) Concerning grace: it is selective and irresistible. Those who are saved, Augustine taught, are saved by divine grace resulting from divine decree. The number of the elect has been fixed by that decree, and can neither be increased nor diminished. These elect souls are preserved by divine power. If they should go into sin they will undoubtedly be punished, but they will certainly be recalled and restored, for "they shall never perish." This irresistible grace, according to Augustine, has three distinguishing aspects which are stated thus:
- (a) Prevenient grace. It is this which gives the first motion toward God and goodness, and constitutes the beginning of salvation.
- (b) Operating grace. It is this which produces in man the will to do right.
- (c) Co-operating grace. It is this which supports the soul in its efforts and struggles, and enables it to perform its desire. Traces of the old nature still remain in the regenerate soul, and there is a lifelong conflict between the old nature and the new.
So raged the conflict between Pelagius and Augustine, dividing the Church into two distinct theological camps; but the very fact of their respective extremes soon drove thinking men to ask whether either side had the entire truth, and whether it might not be possible that somewhere between the two sharp points of controversy there was to be found a sane middle line of divinely revealed teaching. This brought to the Church a mediating line of doctrine known as Semi-Pelagianism.
c. Semi-Pelagianism. The chief exponent of this teaching was the monk John Cassian, who rigorously opposed the Augustinian denial of free will on the one hand and the Pelagian depreciation of divine grace on the other.
The efforts of the Semi-Pelagian teachers was to reconcile the two truths of the will of man and the grace of God. They admitted the fact of the Fall and the consequent hereditary taint of the whole race. Man by nature was inclined to evil and needed to be prevented by divine grace. Moreover, no man was sufficient of himself to complete any good work.
Though acknowledging that the first call to salvation sometimes comes to an unwilling soul and is the direct result of prevenient grace, they held that ordinarily grace depends on the working of the individual will, man's will being provided at the outset with seeds of virtue which of themselves tend to bring forth good fruit, the function of grace being to water them; in that sense grace is necessary for their development. This grace is given to all alike in that Christ died for all. Soon therefore a middle party came to be recognized which very clearly declared itself on four great issues: (1) It opposed the teaching of predestination. (2) It insisted on the moral responsibility of man. (3) It upheld the chastity of marriage. (4) It repudiated the idea of inherited guilt, insisting that while depravity may be inherited, guilt can be applied only to an individual act willingly committed.
The scope of our subject will not permit us to trace with any degree of detail the thought of the Middle Ages, except to say that as we approach the Reformation period we find the Augustinian and the Semi-Pelagian views contending for supremacy. The period has been characterized as one of general restlessness and dissatisfaction. Strong undercurrents developed which culminated in the Reformation and its distinctive theology and which ultimately brought into being the two main thought streams recognized by evangelical believers today, the Calvinistic and the Arminian theologies.
d. Calvinism. The leaders of the Reformation did not attempt to rethink their theology with regard to the question of sin, but simply restored and embellished the teaching of Augustine. Calvinism therefore may be stated as Augustinianism pushed farther. Its principal tenets are:
- (1) The doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total ruin of the human race as the result of the Fall. By reason of this, man is wholly deprived of original righteousness and is therefore totally corrupt.
- (2) The doctrine of inherited guilt. Consequent upon their relationship with Adam, men share not only the depravity but also the guilt resulting from the Fall.
- (3) The doctrine of peculiar redemption. This may be summarized as follows: From among the corrupt mass of Adam's lost and helpless race, God has selected a limited number, known as the elect. It was for these, and these alone, that Jesus died.
To each of these elect souls there will come the effectual call, with which also will be given enabling grace insuring the soul's response.
These divinely favored ones may fall in grace, but they can never fall from it. Being in possession of eternal life they can never perish, no matter what they do. They are divinely held and therefore must persevere.
e. Arminianism. The Reformation school soon divided, the first difficulty coming on the subject of decrees, some insisting that the decrees of election determined that man should fall, thus furnishing the divine opportunity for particular redemption, while others contended that election came after the Fall.
Then came the new movement headed by James Harmensen, now better known as Arminius, who was then professor of theology in the University of Leyden, Holland. It was the best form of his teaching that was laid hold on by Wesley, and which he made the basic doctrine of the Methodist church. In it, it is felt that all the essential truth of Augustine's teaching is preserved, while his errors and also the errors of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism are avoided.
Four statements will set forth the general Arminian position with regard to this question:
- (1) Man by nature is totally depraved. When the Arminian says this, however, he does not mean, as one writer has put it: (a) That there is not any good in any man. (b) That all men are equally bad. (c) That every man is as bad as he can be. (d) That every man commits exactly the same sin. (e) That outside the pale of professed religion there have not been and are not today men of high moral tone. What he does mean is: (a) That in this question of sin the entire race is involved. By the very fact of birth connection, every person contracts the evil taint that is common to the race. (b) That in this contraction the whole man is involved. He is corrupted in every faculty of his being and every department of his life.
- (2) Yet, since this depravity is involuntary, it does not indicate demerit. Guilt is born only of actual transgression; therefore, until the involuntary state is endorsed by the voluntary act, demerit does not appear.
- (3) Salvation from this condition is not limited to the few, but is free to all.
- (4) While salvation is by grace, it is in co-operation with the human will. Prevenient grace must first excite the will to action.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE STUDENT
While we have sought to set forth this doctrinal development as clearly as possible with the limits of the present work, it will be immediately recognized that at best such a statement can be little more than a mere sketch. Follow up the thoughts suggested by a course of wider reading. It will prove to be very worthwhile.
- Into what two main thought streams did the early interpretation of Church truth divide?
- What is Pelagianism? Define the teaching.
- What is Augustinianism? Define the teaching.
- What is Semi-Pelagianism? Define the teaching.
- What is Calvinism? Define the teaching.
- What is Arminianism? Define the teaching.