(chaTTa'th, "a missing," `awon, "perversity]" pesha`, "transgression," ra`, "evil," etc.; hamartano, "miss the mark," parabasis, "transgression" with a suggestion of violence, adikia, "injustice," "unrighteousness"):
1. Sin as Disobedience
2. Affects the Inner Life
3. Involves All Men
4. The Story of the Fall
5. The Freedom of Man
6. A Transgression against Light
7. Inwardness of the Moral Law
8. Sin a Positive Force
12. Life in Christ
1. Sin as Disobedience:
A fairly exact definition of sin based on Biblical data would be that sin is the transgression of the law of God (1Jo 3:4). Ordinarily, sin is defined simply as "the transgression of the law," but the idea of God is so completely the essential conception of the entire Biblical revelation that we can best define sin as disobedience to the law of God. It will be seen that primarily sin is an act, but from the very beginning it has been known that acts have effects, not only in the outward world of things and persons, but also upon him who commits the act.
2. Affects the Inner Life:
Hence, we find throughout the Scriptures a growing emphasis on the idea of the sinful act as not only a fact in itself, but also as a revelation of an evil disposition on the part of him who commits the act (Ge 6:5).
3. Involves All Men:
Then also there is the further idea that deeds which so profoundly affect the inner life of an individual in some way have an effect in transmitting evil tendencies to the descendants of a sinful individual (Ps 51:5-6; Eph 2:3). See HEREDITY; TRADITION. Hence, we reach shortly the conception, not only that sin is profoundly inner in its consequences, but that its effects reach outward also to an extent which practically involves the race. Around these various items of doctrine differing systems of theology have sprung up.
4. The Story of the Fall:
Students of all schools are agreed that we have in the Old Testament story of the fall of Adam an eternally true account of the way sin comes into the world (Ge 3:1-6). The question is not so much as to the literal historic matter-of-factness of the narrative, as to its essentially psychological truthfulness. The essential thought of the narrative is that both Adam and Eve disobeyed an express command of God. The seductiveness of temptation is nowhere more forcefully stated than in this narrative. The fruit of the tree is pleasant to look upon; it is good to eat; it is to be desired to make one wise; moreover, the tempter moves upon the woman by the method of the half truth (see ADAM IN THE OLD TESTAMENT). God had said that disobedience to the command would bring death; the tempter urged that disobedience would not bring death, implying that the command of God had meant that death would immediately follow the eating of the forbidden fruit. In the story the various avenues of approach of sin to the human heart are graphically suggested, but after the seductiveness of evil has thus been set forth, the fact remains that both transgressors knew they were transgressing (Ge 3:2 f). Of course, the story is told in simple, naive fashion, but its perennial spiritual truth is at once apparent. There has been much progress in religious thinking concerning sin during the Christian ages, but the progress has not been away from this central conception of willful disobedience to the law of God.
5. The Freedom of Man:
In this early Biblical account there is implicit the thought of the freedom of man. The idea of transgression has sometimes been interpreted in such wise as to do away with this freedom. An unbiased reading of the Scriptures would, with the possible exception of some passages which designedly lay stress on the power of God (Ro 8:29-30), produce on the mind the impression that freedom is essential to sin. Certainly there is nothing in the account of the Old Testament or New Testament narratives to warrant the conception that men are born into sin by forces over which they have no control. The argument of the tempter with the woman is an argument aimed at her will. By easy steps, indeed, she moves toward the transgression, but the transgression is a transgression and nothing else. Of course, the evil deed is at once followed by attempts on the part of the transgressors to explain themselves, but the futility of the explanations is part of the point of the narrative. In all discussion of the problem of freedom as relating to sin, we must remember that the Biblical revelation is from first to last busy with the thought of the righteousness and justice and love of God (Ge 6:9 tells us that because of justice or righteousness, Noah walked with God). Unless we accept the doctrine that God is Himself not free, a doctrine which is nowhere implied in the Scripture, we must insist that the condemnation of men as sinful, when they have not had freedom to be otherwise than sinful, is out of harmony with the Biblical revelation of the character of God. Of course this does not mean that a man is free in all things. Freedom is limited in various ways, but we must retain enough of freedom in our thought of the constitution of men to make possible our holding fast to the Biblical idea of sin as transgression. Some who take the Biblical narrative as literal historical fact maintain that all men sinned in Adam (see IMPUTATION,III , 1). Adam may have been free to sin or not to sin, but, "in his fall we sinned all." We shall mention the hereditary influences of sin in a later paragraph; here it is sufficient to say that even if the first man had not sinned, there is nothing in our thought of the nature of man to make it impossible to believe that the sinful course of human history could have been initiated by some descendant of the first man far down the line.
6. A Transgression against Light:
The progress of the Biblical teaching concerning sin also would seem to imply that the transgression of the law must be a transgression committed against the light (Ac 17:30; 1Ti 1:13). To be sinful in any full sense of the word, a man must know that the course which he is adopting is an evil course. This does not necessarily mean a full realization of the evil of the course. It is a fact, both of Biblical revelation and of revelation of all times, that men who commit sin do not realize the full evil of their deeds until after the sin has been committed (2Sa 12:1-13). This is partly because the consequences of sin do not declare themselves until after the deed has been committed; partly also because of the remorse of the conscience; and partly from the humiliation at being discovered; but in some sense there must be a realization of the evil of a course to make the adoption of the course sinful. E.g. in estimating the moral worth of Biblical characters, especially those of earlier times, we must keep in mind the standards of the times in which they lived. These standards were partly set by the customs of the social group, but the customs were, in many cases, made sacred by the claim of divine sanction. Hence, we find Biblical characters giving themselves readily to polygamy and warfare. The Scriptures themselves, however, throw light upon this problem. They refer to early times as times of ignorance, an ignorance which God Himself was willing to overlook (Ac 17:30). Even so ripe a moral consciousness as that of Paul felt that there was ground for forgiveness toward a course which he himself later considered evil, because in that earlier course he had acted ignorantly (Ac 26:9; 1Ti 1:13).
7. Inwardness of the Moral Law:
The Biblical narratives, too, show us the passage over from sin conceived of as the violation of external commands to sin conceived of as an unwillingness to keep the commandments in the depths of the inner life. The course of Biblical history is one long protest against conceiving of sin in an external fashion.
In the sources of light which are to help men discern good from evil, increasing stress is laid upon inner moral insight (compare Isa 58:5 f; Ho 6:1-7). The power of the prophets was in their direct moral insight and the fervor with which they made these insights real to the mass of the people. Of course it was necessary that the spirit of the prophets be given body and form in carefully articulated law. The progress of the Hebrews from the insight of the seer to the statute of the lawmaker was not different from such progress in any other nations. It is easy to see, however, how the hardening of moral precepts into formal codes, absolutely necessary as that task was, led to an externalizing of the thought of sin. The man who did not keep the formal law was a sinner. On such basis there grew up the artificial systems which came to their culmination in the New Testament times in Pharisaism. On the other hand, a fresh insight by a new prophet might be in violation of the Law, considered in its literal aspects. It might be necessary for a prophet to attack outright some additions to the Law. We regard as a high-water mark of Old Testament moral utterances the word of Micah that the Lord requires men to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him (Ho 6:8). At the time this word was uttered, the people were giving themselves up to multitudes of sacrifices. Many of these sacrifices called for the heaviest sufferings on the part of the worshippers. It would seem that an obligation to sacrifice the firstborn was beginning to be taught in order that the Hebrews might not be behind the neighboring heathen nations in observances of religious codes. The simple direct word of Micah must have seemed heresy to many of its first hearers. The outcome, however, of this conflict between the inner and the outer in the thought of transgression was finally to deepen the springs of the inner life. The extremes of externalism led to a break with moral realities which tended to become apparent to the most ordinary observer. The invective of Jesus against New Testament Pharisaism took its force largely from the fact that Jesus gave clear utterance to what everyone knew. Those who thought of religion as external gave themselves to formal keeping of the commandments and allowed the inner life to run riot as it would (Mt 23:23, et al.).
With the more serious-minded the keeping of the Law became more and more a matter of the inner spirit. There were some who, like Paul, found it impossible to keep the Law and find peace of conscience (Ro 7:1-25). It was this very impossibility which forced some, like Paul, to understand that after all, sin or righteousness must be judged by the inner disposition. It was this which led to the search for a conception of a God who looks chiefly at the heart and judges men by the inner motive.
In the teaching of Jesus the emphasis upon the inner spirit as the essential factor in the moral life came to its climax. Jesus honored the Law, but He pushed the keeping of the Law back from the mere performance of externals to the inner stirrings of motives. It is not merely the actual commission of adultery, for example, that is sin: it is the lustful desire which leads to the evil glance; it is not merely the actual killing of the man that is murder; it is the spirit of hatred which makes the thought of murder welcome (Mt 5:21,27). Paul caught the spirit of Jesus and carried the thought of Jesus out into more elaborate and formal statements. There is a law of the inner life with which man should bind himself, and this law is the law of Christ's life itself (Ro 8:1-4). While both Jesus and Paul recognized the place of the formal codes in the moral life of individuals and societies, they wrought a great service for righteousness in setting on high the obligations upon the inner spirit. The follower of Christ is to guard the inmost thoughts of his heart. The commandments are not always precepts which can be given articulated statement; they are rather instincts and intuitions and glimpses which must be followed, even when we cannot give them full statement.
8. Sin a Positive Force:
From this standpoint we are able to discern something of the force of the Biblical teaching as to whether sin is to be looked upon as negative or positive. Very often sin is defined as the mere absence of goodness. The man who sins is one who does not keep the Law. This, however, is hardly the full Biblical conception. Of course, the man who does not keep the Law is regarded as a sinner, but the idea transgression is very often that of a positive refusal to keep the commandment and a breaking of the commandment. Two courses are set before men, one good, the other evil. The evil course is, in a sense, something positive in itself. The evil man does not stand still; he moves as truly as the good man moves; he becomes a positive force for evil. In all our discussions we must keep clearly in mind the truth that evil is not something existing in and by itself. The Scriptures deal with evil men, and the evil men are as positive as their natures permit them to be. In this sense of the word sin does run a course of positive destruction. In the thought, e.g., of the writer who describes the conditions which, in his belief, made necessary the Flood, we have a positive state of evil contaminating almost the whole world (Ge 6:11). It would be absurd to characterize the world in the midst of which Noah lived as merely a negative world. The world was positively set toward evil. And so, in later writings, Paul's thought of Roman society is of a world of sinful men moving with increasing velocity toward the destruction of themselves and of all around them through doing evil. It is impossible to believe that Ro 1:1-32 conceives of sin merely in negative terms. We repeat, we do not do full justice to the Biblical conception when we speak of sin merely in negative terms. If we may be permitted to use a present-day illustration, we may say that in the Biblical thought sinful men are like the destructive forces in the world of Nature which must be removed before there can be peace and health for human life. For example, science today has much to say concerning germs of diseases which prove destructive to human life. A large part of modern scientific effort has been to rid the world of these germs, or at least to cleanse human surroundings from their contaminating touch. The man who sterilizes the human environment so that these forces cannot touch men does in one sense a merely negative work; in another sense, however, his work makes possible the positive development of the forces which make for health.
It is from this thought of the positiveness of sin that we are to approach the problem of the hereditary transmission of evil. The Biblical teaching has often been misinterpreted at this point. Apart from certain passages, especially those of Paul, which set forth the practically universal contamination of sin (e.g. Ro 5:18, etc.), there is nothing in the Scriptures to suggest the idea that men are born into the world under a weight of guilt. We hold fast to the idea of God as a God of justice and love. There is no way of reconciling these attributes with the condemnation of human souls before these souls have themselves transgressed. Of course much theological teaching moves on the assumption that the tendencies to evil are so great that the souls will necessarily trangress, but we must keep clearly in mind the difference between a tendency to evil and the actual commission of evil. Modern scientific research reinforces the conception that the children of sinful parents, whose sins have been such as to impress their lives throughout, will very soon manifest symptoms of evil tendency. Even in this case, however, we must distinguish between the psychological and moral. The child may be given a wrong tendency from birth, not only by hereditary transmission, but by the imitation of sinful parents; yet the question of the child's own personal responsibility is altogether another matter. Modern society has come to recognize something of the force of this distinction. In dealing with extreme cases of this kind, the question of the personal guilt of the child is not raised. The attempt is to throw round about the child an environment that will correct the abnormal tendency. But there can be little gainsaying the fact that the presence of sin in the life of the parent may go as far as to mark the life of the child with the sinful tendency.
The positive force of sinful life also appears in the effect of sin upon the environment of men. It is not necessary for us to believe that all the physical universe was cursed by the Almighty because of man's sin, in order to hold that there is a curse upon the world because of the presence of sinful men. Men have sinfully despoiled the world for their own selfish purposes. They have wasted its resources. They have turned forces which ought to have made for good into the channels of evil. In their contacts with one another also, evil men furnish an evil environment. If the employer of 100 men be himself evil, he is to a great extent the evil environment of those 100 men. The curse of his evil is upon them. So with the relations of men in larger social groups: the forces of state-life which are intended to work for good can be made to work for evil. So far has this gone that some earnest minds have thought of the material and social realms as necessarily and inherently evil. In other days this led to retreats from the world in monasteries and in solitary cells. In our present time the same thought is back of much of the pessimist idea that the world itself is like a sinking ship, absolutely doomed. The most we can hope for is to save individuals here and there from imminent destruction. Yet a more Biblical conception keeps clear of all this. The material forces of the world--apart from certain massive physical necessities (e.g. earthquakes, storms, floods, whirlwinds, fires, etc.), whose presence does more to furnish the conditions of moral growth than to discourage that growth--are what men cause them to be. Social forces are nothing apart from the men who are themselves the forces. No one can deny that evil men can use physical forces for evil purposes, and that evil men can make bad social forces, but both these forces can be used for good as well as for evil. "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain" waiting for the redemption at the hands of the sons of God (Ro 8:19-23).
In the thought of Jesus, righteousness is life. Jesus came that men might have life (Joh 10:10). It must follow therefore that in His thought sin is death, or rather it is the positive course of transgression which makes toward death (Joh 5:24). But man is to cease to do evil and to learn to do well. He is to face about and walk in a different direction; he is to be born from above (Joh 3:3), and surrender himself to the forces which beat upon him from above rather than to those which surge upon him from below (Ro 12:2). From the realization of the positiveness both of sin and of righteousness, we see the need of a positive force which is to bring men from sin to righteousness (Joh 3:3-8).
Of course, in what we have said of the positive nature of sin we would not deny that there are multitudes of men whose evil consists in their passive acquiescence in a low moral state. Multitudes of men may not be lost, in the sense that they are breaking the more obvious of the commandments. They are lost, in the sense that they are drifting about, or that they are existing in a condition of inertness with no great interest in high spiritual ideals. But the problem even here is to find a force strong enough and positive enough to bring such persons to themselves and to God. In any case the Scriptures lay stress upon the seriousness of the problem constituted by sin. The Bible is centered on redemption. Redemption from sin is thought of as carrying with it redemption from all other calamities. If the kingdom of God and of His righteousness can be seized, all other things will follow with the seizure (Mt 6:33). The work of Christ is set before us as chiefly a work of redemption from sin. A keen student once observed that almost all failures to take an adequate view of the person of Christ can be traced to a failure to realize adequately the seriousness of sin. The problem of changing the course of something so positive as a life set toward sin is a problem which may well tax the resources of the Almighty. Lives cannot be transformed merely by precept. The only effective force is the force of a divine life which will reach and save human lives.
See REDEMPTION .
12. Life in Christ:
We are thus in a position to see something of the positiveness of the life that must be in Christ if He is to be a Saviour from sin. That positiveness must be powerful enough to make men feel that in some real sense God Himself has come to their rescue (Ro 8:32-39). For the problem of salvation from sin is manifold. Sin long persisted in begets evil habits, and the habits must be broken. Sin lays the conscience under a load of distress, for which the only relief is a sense of forgiveness. Sin blights and paralyzes the faculties to such a degree that only the mightiest of tonic forces can bring back health and strength. And the problem is often more serious than this. The presence of evil in the world is so serious in the sight of a Holy God that He Himself, because of His very holiness, must be under stupendous obligation to aid us to the utmost for the redemption of men. Out of the thought of the disturbance which sin makes even in the heart of God, we see something of the reason for the doctrine that in the cross of Christ God was discharging a debt to Himself and to the whole world; for the insistence also that in the cross there is opened up a fountain of life, which, if accepted by sinful men, will heal and restore them.
It is with this seriousness of sin before us that we must think of forgiveness from sin. We can understand very readily that sin can be forgiven only on condition that men seek forgiveness in the name of the highest manifestation of holiness which they have known. For those who have heard the preaching of the cross and have seen something of the real meaning of that preaching, the way to forgiveness is in the name of the cross. In the name of a holiness which men would make their own, if they could; in the name of an ideal of holy love which men of themselves cannot reach, but which they forever strive after, they seek forgiveness. But the forgiveness is to be taken seriously. In both the Old Testament and New Testament repentance is not merely a changed attitude of mind. It is an attitude which shows its sincerity by willingness to do everything possible to undo the evil which the sinner has wrought (Lu 19:8). If there is any consequence of the sinner's own sin which the sinner can himself make right, the sinner must in himself genuinely repent and make that consequence right. In one sense repentance is not altogether something done once for all. The seductiveness of sin is so great that there is need of humble and continuous watching. While anything like a morbid introspection is unscriptural, constant alertness to keep to the straight and narrow path is everywhere enjoined as an obligation (Ga 6:1).
There is nothing in the Scriptures which will warrant the idea that forgiveness is to be conceived of in such fashion as would teach that the consequences of sin can be easily and quickly eliminated. Change in the attitude of a sinner necessarily means change in the attitude of God. The sinner and God, however, are persons, and the Scriptures always speak of the problem of sin after a completely personal fashion. The changed attitude affects the personal standing of the sinner in the sight of God. But God is the person who creates and carries on a moral universe. In carrying on that universe He must keep moral considerations in their proper place as the constitutional principles of the universe. While the father welcomes back the prodigal to the restored personal relations with himself, he cannot, in the full sense, blot out the fact that the prodigal has been a prodigal. The personal forgiveness may be complete, but the elimination of the consequences of the evil life is possible only through the long lines of healing set at work. The man who has sinned against his body can find restoration from the consequences of the sin only in the forces which make for bodily healing. So also with the mind and will. The mind which has thought evil must be cured of its tendency to think evil. To be sure the curative processes may come almost instantly through the upheaval of a great experience, but on the other hand, the curative processes may have to work through long years (see SANCTIFICATION). The will which has been given to sin may feel the stirrings of sin after the life of forgiveness has begun. All this is a manifestation, not only of the power of sin, but of the constitutional morality of the universe. Forgiveness must not be interpreted in such terms as to make the transgression of the Law of God in any sense a light or trivial offense. But, on the other hand, we must not set limits to the curative powers of the cross of God. With the removal of the power which makes for evil the possibility of development in real human experience is before the life (see FORGIVENESS). The word of the Master is that He "came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly" (Joh 10:10). Sin is serious, because it thwarts life. Sin is given so large a place in the thought of the Biblical writers simply because it blocks the channel of that movement toward the fullest life which the Scriptures teach is the aim of God in placing men in the world. God is conceived of as the Father in Heaven. Sin has a deeply disturbing effect in restraining the relations between the Father and the sons and of preventing the proper development of the life of the sons.
Tennant, Origin and Propagation of Sin; Hyde, Sin and Its Forgiveness; chapter on "Incarnation and Atonement" in Bowne's Studies in Christianity; Stevens, Christian Doctrine of Salvation; Clarke, Christian Doctrine of God; various treatises on Systematic Theology.
Francis J. McConnell