Sin: A History
Gary A. Anderson. 2009. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. 272 pages.
Sin: The Early History of an Idea
Paula Fredriksen. 2012. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 248 pages.
Fallen: A Theology of Sin
Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors. 2013. Crossway, Wheaton, IL. 320 pages.
A popular American TV sitcom in the 1970s featured a fictional character who was so cool he couldn’t admit he might be wrong. Audiences around the world watched as Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli of Happy Days struggled to articulate the word. It just wasn’t in his vocabulary. He was simply way too cool; it was inconceivable that he could be “wrr-, wrr-, wrr-,” … wrong.
Is anything or anyone wrong anymore? Does it depend on whom you ask? To be sure, human beings continue to err in judgment and to behave badly. However, today it seems that much human wrongdoing is reduced to the accepted fact that everyone makes mistakes.
People do make mistakes, but do people still do wrong? Even more pointedly, do people still sin?
Modern society seems to prefer softer, gentler terms when depicting human faults and flaws. Describing behavior as sinful is strictly reserved for the most heinous forms of depravity. Violations of what were once considered established moral principles are increasingly portrayed as matters of personal preference, likes and dislikes, quirks and idiosyncrasies. Vices are mere foibles, the natural by-product of human frailty.
In an effort to be understanding and tolerant of human misconduct, have we unwittingly absolved ourselves of being sinners? Are we too sophisticated to ss-, ss-, sss-, … sin?
The Judeo-Christian ethic has profoundly influenced the development of Western civilization. It would be difficult to overstate the impact that the Bible, one of the best-selling books of all time, has had on our culture. That influence appears to be waning, however. There is very little consensus on what is right and wrong in much of the world today. We have entered an era in which moral relativism has eclipsed our Judeo-Christian heritage. Unconditional tolerance is transforming Western culture and seems to have become, for a growing number, their most cherished value. Can the Bible’s teaching on sin serve a useful purpose in the cultural context of the 21st century?
Some still believe that Western society has benefited from the Judeo-Christian perspective on sin. They suggest that the troubled record of human history would be far worse without a wholesome concern for sin and its consequences. The fear of punishment for wrongdoing, now and in the future, has restrained human nature at least somewhat.
Others, however, conclude that the idea of sin as we know it has run its course. It was at best an arbitrary set of standards that unnecessarily shackled individuality and stifled freedom of self-expression. Living under the threat of condemnation for common human failings seems unreasonable and unfair. In this view, the trend toward a more sophisticated, open-minded tolerance in modern society will render the concept of sin outmoded so we can all declare “Good riddance!” to sin.
Tempting as it might be to jettison the idea of sin and dismiss it as an antiquated nuisance, perhaps we should consider what’s at stake. Sin is a major theme of the Bible. How God deals with the sin problem when it corrupts that which He created and called “very good” (Genesis 1:31) is the story of Scripture. Salvation is meaningless without acknowledging what it is that humanity needs to be saved from. If there is no sin, there is no need for reconciliation with a wronged God, and seeking forgiveness becomes folly.
“It is impossible to understand sin and forgiveness in the Bible without attending carefully to the metaphors in which these concepts are embedded. They are an essential feature of biblical thought and embody its intricacies.”
Many today see sin as merely a social construct that can be altered to suit our times. What a previous era labeled as evil can be legitimized if a subsequent “enlightened” generation chooses to do so. What was once sinful can become socially acceptable by the will of the people.
Who determines what is right or wrong? The Bible indicates that sin can be understood only within a context that includes God (Psalm 51:1, 4). We recognize it only through God’s revelation (Isaiah 5:20–21; Isaiah 55:6–9).
Perhaps it would be helpful to examine how conventional views on the subject came into being in order to see whether they reflect what the Bible actually says about the past, present and future of sin.
Three current books will help in the effort to trace sin’s history.
In his 2009 work, Sin: A History, theology professor Gary Anderson shows that the Bible uses an assortment of words and expressions to depict sin. Various metaphors present word pictures that portray how the concept was understood at the time of writing. Anderson believes that metaphors matter: “It is impossible to understand sin and forgiveness in the Bible without attending carefully to the metaphors in which these concepts are embedded.”
“Absent individual responsibility, it seems impossible to have a clear idea of crime, much less of sin.”
He adds: “Sin is not just a thing, however, but a particular kind of thing. When one sins, something concrete happens: one’s hands may become stained, one’s back may become burdened, or one may fall into debt. And the verbal expressions that render the idea of forgiveness follow suit: stained hands are cleansed, burdens are lifted, and debts are either paid off or remitted. It is as though a stain, weight, or bond of indebtedness is created ex nihilo when one offends against God. And that thing that sin has created will continue to haunt the offenders until it has been engaged and dealt with.”
Anderson notes a significant shift in metaphors after Persian influence introduced Aramaic as the official language of law and commerce in Israel. In earlier biblical writings, sin is likened to a physical burden lowered onto the back of the guilty, or to a stain that discolors the hands. The metaphor of choice changes dramatically under the influence of Aramaic during the Second Temple period (515 BCE–70 CE). The imagery of sin in the Gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature is primarily economic. To be a sinner is to owe a debt. Christ’s model prayer asks God to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12). Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae instructs believers to understand the forgiveness of their trespasses as the blotting out of a bond of indebtedness (Colossians 2:13–14).
When sin was primarily portrayed as a debt that must be repaid in order to be redeemed in God’s eyes, it raised obvious questions. How would the debt be paid off? Who would pay it?
Controversy arose as early theologians attempted to answer these questions. Varied forms of penance, deeds of charity, and the purchasing of papal indulgences were considered as options for sinners to put their balance sheet in order with God, who was sometimes seen as the great bookkeeper of the treasury in heaven. Drawing on the credit that Christ’s sacrifice had deposited in heaven on one’s behalf became commonplace. The business of paying off one’s sins would play a significant role in the revolt that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
Boston University’s Paula Fredriksen currently teaches comparative religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her latest book, Sin: The Early History of an Idea, surveys the first four centuries of Christian thought on the subject of sin, emphasizing the teachings of Jesus and Paul to their first-century audiences, Jewish and gentile respectively. She also considers the stance of five early church thinkers: Justin, Valentinus, Marcion, Origen and Augustine, whose writings demonstrate the “dramatic mutations in Christian ideas about sin.”
Fredriksen offers a “classical three-way configuration of factors necessary for conceiving an idea of sin: humanity, revealed knowledge, divinity.” God expresses His will and thereby instructs those who will enter into a relationship with Him of their individual responsibility to follow His lead.
If any of the three essential components is missing, the concept of sin becomes blurred. Those who refuse to recognize the existence of God (or “divinity”) will not comprehend the concept of sin. There is no Creator to whom they are accountable, so they trust in their own judgment as a moral compass to navigate life. If the role of revealed knowledge is rejected, then even if one professes belief in God, he or she cannot know what is important to Him and is thus poorly equipped to respond appropriately. If humans, made in the image of God, refuse to accept any personal responsibility to represent their Creator, the idea of sin will seem silly. These individuals may admit they are capable of making mistakes but will never acknowledge their culpability for something as wrong as sin. The absence of God from the equation, the rejection of revealed knowledge, or the human refusal of individual responsibility before God skews the concept of sin.
Fredriksen recognizes the inconsistency in identifying sin in the 21st century. “People may not ‘believe’ in sin, and they may be convinced that while they themselves might ‘make mistakes’ they do not ‘really’ sin; but they somehow seem to know sin when they see it in the behavior of others.”
Reintroducing a Concept
Fallen: A Theology of Sin, is a recent collaborative work done as part of Crossway’s Theology in Community series. It brings together the work of several scholars to seek a comprehensive understanding of the biblical concept of sin and offers much food for thought on the subject.
New Testament theologian D.A. Carson starts the discussion by addressing “sin’s contemporary significance.” He asserts that today’s need for clear and correct teaching on the biblical concept of sin is found in the utter lack of it: “In short, the first and most obvious contemporary significance to preaching a robust doctrine of sin is that it confronts the almost universal absence of such teaching. In other words the first contemporary significance of biblical teaching on sin is not that it meshes nicely with contemporary worldviews and therefore provides a pleasant way into thoughtful interaction but precisely because it confronts the painfully perverse absence of awareness of sin.”
Carson remarks, “One simply cannot make sense of the Bible without a profound and growing sensitivity to the multifaceted and powerful ways the Bible portrays sins.”
Paul R. House, a professor of Old Testament theology and Hebrew, analyzes how the Bible portrays sin within the scope of the Hebrew Scriptures. He highlights Exodus 34:1–9 as a helpful passage in that it discloses God’s character and simultaneously defines sin. Contrary to popular opinion, we learn from these verses that God, even in what is called the Old Testament, is not only just but also gracious and compassionate.
Since Adam and Eve accepted the advice of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, their offspring have failed to express faith in God, His word and His love. It insults God when those made in His image are reluctant to take Him at His word and instead resort to idolatry; that is, they look elsewhere for objects to worship (Romans 1:20–23, 28; 1 Corinthians 6:9). In one sense all sin is a form of idolatry: it stems from a failure to honor God as God.
“Temptation comes first, then sin… . Temptation is a warning, a red light, a sign of danger. The normal function of pain is to alert us to disease and injury. The spiritual function of temptation is to put us on guard against the danger of sin.”
“Sin’s motives do not change,” writes House. “Humans inevitably eventually choose to believe someone other than God because they want something that God has not promised or because they simply do not believe what God has declared. The problem, then, is not with God. He provides for people, for he is kind, compassionate, and utterly committed to covenant relationship making. The problem lies in human beings’ twisting, rebelling against, and missing the goals that God has set in his standards. Yet God stands ready to forgive. Adam, Eve, and Moses’ Israelites all act against God and his word because of unbelief and its accompanying destructive desires and deeds.”
Doubting God has been humanity’s way ever since, and that obstinate disbelief has been a prevailing theme in the history of sin. Failure to trust God as having their best interest at heart led to our ancestors coveting that which didn’t belong to them.
House adds: “As always in the Bible, one’s walk with God depends on one’s faith in God, the creator, covenant maker, forgiver, and sender of his people to be a kingdom of priests that declare his glory to the world (1 Pet. 2:9–10). In all of life, that which ‘does not proceed from faith is sin’ (Rom. 14:23). Faith leads to obedience to what God has said. Obedience to God because of who he is, what he has done, and what he commands remains the opposite of sin.”
“Children of Disobedience”
New Testament scholar Douglas J. Moo, another contributor to Fallen, examines a segment of Paul’s epistle to the church at Ephesus. It illustrates the apostle’s understanding of sin’s pernicious nature.
Ephesians 2:1–3 reveals much on the subject. There, and in the following verses, Christ’s followers at Ephesus are described as having been as good as dead because of sin, but then rescued. “The course of this world,” which all have been a part of, is under the influence of an adversarial spirit that produces “children of disobedience.” Human conduct is characterized by a craving for gratification of the flesh and mind; but the resultant sin has consequences. The “children of disobedience” are thus the “children of wrath.” God, in mercy and love, comes to their rescue.
Moo goes on to discuss ways in which that adversarial spirit, Satan the devil, pressures people to do wrong. Paul describes the world as worsening over time. Selfishness would prevail, he said, and the world would become a dangerous place (2 Timothy 3:1–7; see also Matthew 24:12). His portrayal is remarkably familiar—a world where the standards of human conduct deteriorate even while displays of religiosity abound. God’s day-to-day influence is summarily dismissed, yet society seems incapable of righting itself.
When sin is seen simply as a set of acts to be avoided, Moo points out, there is a powerful temptation to legislate the wrongdoing out of existence. These human efforts, well-meant as they might be, are misguided, create confusion, and often obscure the biblical teaching on sin. Sin is not abolished by legislation; it is an individual problem to be individually repented of and forgiven.
In his essay in Fallen, theologian and historian Gerald Bray offers a prime example of the human attempt to legislate against sin. He asks us to consider the American prohibition movement of the 1920s: “It was not long before evangelistic campaigns developed into social reform movements, of which the most notorious (and ultimately the most spectacularly unsuccessful) was the campaign for the prohibition of alcohol, known colloquially as teetotalism.”
Bray points out that “total abstinence from alcohol, as opposed to the condemnation of drunkenness, had never been part of Christian teaching before, and in many ways it went against biblical practice. To justify it, its supporters had to redefine temperance, a biblical virtue which at that time became synonymous with ‘abstinence from alcohol’ even though that is not what the word means in the New Testament.”
In fact, he says, “by the standards of the so-called temperance movement, Jesus himself would have been thrown out of the church, an irony that was unfortunately lost on those who thought it was an integral part of the gospel.”
“In addition to the evil wrought by people and what is sometimes called ‘natural’ evil, the Bible speaks of supernatural perpetrators of evil. Chief among these is Satan, who is referred to as ‘the Evil One’ a dozen times in the New Testament.”
The Bible on Sin
All three of these books offer interesting and often useful insights and perspectives on how 21st-century views of sin developed. In the end, the keys to understanding this challenging subject are found in the Bible itself. The Book of books provides principles that are vital both to comprehending sin and to overcoming its power over us.
Thinking of sin as a few bad habits or personal idiosyncrasies overlooks the depth of human sinfulness. Jesus said that what defiles a man comes from within him (Mark 7:20–23). Something is wrong inside the human heart and mind that inclines it toward sin (Jeremiah 17:9; James 1:13–15). Conversion is a changing of the mind’s orientation from reluctance to responsiveness (Philippians 2:5; Romans 8:6–8). Repentance is the antidote for behavior that is an affront to God, but to recognize and repent of sin requires His help (Romans 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:24–26).
The biblical narrative depicts God as eager to forgive those who acknowledge their sins and who seek reconciliation and a right relationship with Him. When individuals, convicted of the seriousness of their sins, asked for direction from the disciples of Jesus Christ, Peter advised them to repent and express faith in Jesus Christ for the remission (or cancellation) of sins (Acts 2:36–40). Peter stated that God would equip them with His Holy Spirit, enabling them to serve their Creator’s purpose (Romans 6:1–13).
Those eager to say “so long” to sin may be surprised to learn that God has no use for it either. His desire from the foundation of the world has been that all humanity would turn from wrongdoing and express faith in Him (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:24–26; 2 Peter 3:9; Hebrews 11:6). The gospel of the kingdom of God is good news about the promised future—a future marked by righteousness (2 Peter 3:13). Then God gets to say, “Good riddance to sin!”