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Man (Part 2)

Man As Sinner


Most errors on the doctrine of salvation stem from an inadequate doctrine of sin. Luther once said:

    Ignorance of sin of necessity brings in its train ignorance of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, and of all things. For let no one think that he will become a theologian or a good reader or hearer of Holy Scripture if he minimizes the evil of original sin or does not correctly understand it.1

Our doctrine of sin (hamartialogy) is directly related to our doctrine of man (anthropology). If we have an inadequate or faulty doctrine of man, we will have an inadequate or faulty doctrine of sin.

We should remember the two main points we have already covered in the doctrine of man:

1. Man is defined by his relationships. Man's meaning and value are relational.

2. Man is a holistic being. Human life is an indivisible unity.

Our present task is to apply these relational and holistic principles to the doctrine of sin. This means that our discussion of "Man As Sinner" will fall naturally under two main headings: "Sin As Alienation" and "Sin As Total Depravity."

Sin As Alienation

We have found that man is defined by his relationships. To be truly human means to be rightly related to God, to others and to the world. It means to exist harmoniously in this threefold relationship as God intended.

Since man is essentially a relational being, he cannot find meaning, value or significance in his own existence. He must go outside himself to find his meaning, value and significance. A truly human existence is an auterocentric (other-centered) existence. Man was created to go out of himself to live in God and his neighbor. This going out of oneself for the other is what the Bible calls love.

Man as sinner is not man in his healthy, normal state. Instead of going out of himself to the other, he is curved in to himself. He tries to find value, meaning and significance within himself. The worst sin is always the religious sin because, in this, man tries to use the gifts of God for his own self-validation. As a sinner, man is not truly human. He is dehumanized. This curving in to himself has disrupted man's God-given relationships. Sin is a condition of estrangement and alienation.

If being truly human means being rightly related to God, others and the world, then sin is being wrongly related to God, others and the world. It is a disruption of man's God-given relationships. Sin is a condition of alienation.

Man is alienated from God (Col. 1:21). When the Bible speaks about man as sinner, it speaks of him as a sinner "before the Lord." Sin is a religious concept. It is what a man is "in the sight of God." Sin is always "sin against God" (Gen. 39:9; Ps. 51:4). It is a violation of man's relationship with God, a break in communion. Instead of finding his value in his being related to God, man has tried to find it in himself—even in his God-given gifts. In this he has worshiped (given supreme worth) to the creature rather than to the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

The holistic principle of human existence means that man cannot disrupt one relationship without disrupting all relationships. This is illustrated in the fall. When man disrupted his relationship with God, he disrupted his social and environmental relationships. Adam blamed his wife for his defection (Gen. 3:12). Beasts which had been docile and submissive became vicious and dangerous. When Adam was no longer subject to God, the created order was no longer subject to him. The earth itself began to bring forth thorns and thistles. Thus man's alienation from God was reflected in man's alienation from his fellow man and from his environment.

Sociologists and ecologists are now wrestling with the problem of human alienation. They cannot, however, overcome these human problems. At best, they can "rearrange the furniture." But they cannot basically change the human situation. As long as man is alienated from God, he will be alienated from others and the world.

Alienation from God also leads to alienation of man from himself. Because he is human, he has a relationship with himself. He is not only conscious but self-conscious. He reflects upon himself and passes judgment upon himself. He sees himself as he would like to be and feels he ought to be. And he also sees himself as he actually is. The sinner sees that he is not what he ought to be, so he accuses, condemns and rejects the self which he actually is. This is the function of the human conscience.

This self-alienation fractures the wholeness (health) of human life. It enters into and poisons all human relationships and affects all human behavior. It even has a profound influence on man's philosophical assumptions, on his thinking about himself. He alienates body from soul and thinks of himself as two instead of one. He isolates religion and spirituality from his concrete existence and makes a vast separation between what he calls "sacred" and what he calls "secular." He isolates sexuality from the wholeness of life so that it becomes nothing but an unwholesome physical encounter.

Sin is a change in man's God-given relationships. It is not a change in the essential properties of human nature. In the fall the substance of human nature was not changed. Man did not acquire new powers or faculties. They were perverted and put to wrong use. This means that the substance or stuff of human nature is not sinful. The Lutheran Formula of Concord correctly refutes the theory of Flacius which identified sin with the actual substance of human nature. Sin is accidental and not an essential property of human nature. It is a foreign element which has infected human nature, and is not to be confused with human nature itself. It is clear from the Bible that this infection is a demonic element (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8) which renders man less than truly human.2

Man cannot be understood in isolation because he is man only in his relationships. The Bible has no burden to describe the actual composition of human nature. When we ask the question, "What is man?" the Bible directs us to his essential relationships. We can only understand what man is when we see what he is related to. So also, sin is not some bacillus we can isolate and look at in itself. Its existence is a mystery. The Bible gives no description of its composition. Sin is not some disease which floats in the air. It is something which has perverted and distorted all human relationships, especially man's relationship to God. Sin, therefore, must be defined relationally. We will now do this from several different perspectives.

Sin As a Breach of the Covenant.

The God-man relationship is based on a covenant. This is a divinely arranged treaty or compact which specifically defines the terms of the partnership or fellowship between God and man. The privileges and obligations of each party are legally defined.

The Bible presents the character of both God and man in the light of the covenant. God is always loyal and faithful to His covenant (Dan. 9:4; Luke 1:72). He never forgets His covenant or fails to carry it out with undeviating fidelity (Ex. 2:24; Ps. 89:34; 105:8). On the other hand, man the sinner is man the covenant-breaker. His fidelity to the covenant is like the morning cloud which soon vanishes (Hosea 6:4). "For their heart was not right with Him, neither were they steadfast in His covenant" (Ps. 78:37). The whole history of Israel is one of forgetting and forsaking the covenant (Ps. 106:13,21; 1 kings 19:10,14). Sin is the transgression of the covenant (2 Kings 18:12; Ps. 78:10; Jer. 11:2-10; Ezek. 16:59-60; Hosea 6:7; 8:1). Breaking the covenant is a breach of fellowship and a rupture of communion. It is a breach of faith, a condition of estrangement and alienation from God.

Sin As a Breach of the Law.

If we are to think like the Bible writers, we must think of man's violation of his personal relationship with God in a concrete, dynamic way. The covenant is a legal conception. It spells out the concrete terms of the God-man relationship. The God of the Hebrews is preeminently the God of law. The law of God stipulates the kind of behavior required of those who live in covenant fellowship with Him. A person is said to be righteous if his concrete existence fulfills the obligations of his covenantal relationships. Sin is the opposite of righteousness. It means to fall short or to miss the mark imposed by covenantal relationships.

As far as the Bible is concerned, breaking the commandments of God—disobeying the express word of God—and breaking the covenant are the same.

The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.—Isa. 24:5.

And the king stood in his place, and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep His commandments, and His testimonies, and His statutes, with all his heart, and with all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant which are written in this book.—2 Chron. 34:31.

. . . because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed His covenant, and all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded, and would not hear them, nor do them.—2 Kings 18:12.

They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in His law.—Ps. 78:10.

Set the trumpet to thy mouth. He shall come as an eagle against the house of the Lord, because they have transgressed My covenant, and trespassed against My law.—Hosea 8:1.

The apostle John is true to his Old Testament heritage when he declares, "Sin is the transgression of the law ["lawlessness," RSV] (1 John 3:4). So is the Westminster Catechism when it defines sin as any lack of conformity to the law of God in act, disposition or state.

In defining sin we must hold together the concepts of violation of a personal relationship and transgression of the law. We must not try to play one off against the other as some do. In certain circles it has become fashionable to represent the old orthodoxy and the new by the following contrast:

Old Orthodoxy New Orthodoxy
Sin is transgressing the law, breaking a code of conduct. Sin is violating a personal relationship, a break in communion.

The purpose of making this contrast, of course, is to downgrade the impersonal and legalistic nature of the old orthodoxy in favor of a more personalistic religious approach. But to the men who wrote the Bible it was unthinkable to make a dichotomy between relationship and behavior. Much less could they set one off against the other in an either/or proposition. Law does not have any significance apart from God. It is always "the law of the Lord" (Ps. 1:2). It is the revelation of His will and the transcript of His character. Sin, therefore, is not a mere breaking of some legal code of conduct. It is a matter of despising the word of the Lord. Lawbreaking is covenant-breaking. God is personally offended and insulted "because they [sinners] have transgressed the laws, . . . broken the everlasting covenant" (Isa. 24:5).

If we talk about sin as a violation of a relationship apart from any reference to the objective expression of God's will, sin is relativized. and defined by each person's subjective experience. People can talk about having "a beautiful relationship with the Lord" while committing the most outrageous sins. For example, The Wittenberg Door published an interview with a self-confessed homosexual clergyman.3 He justified his deviant lifestyle, and when asked about the Ten Commandments, replied, "Sin . . . is separation from God." This is true enough, but he flatly refused to have sin defined by the Ten Commandments. This illustrates what happens when men refuse to relate an abstract definition of sin to the concrete law of God. All relationships of human existence are defined by law. Unless the church stands on the law of God and calls sin by its right name, every sort of abomination can creep in clothed with the ornaments of Christ's sanctuary.

In Luther's day antinomians arose claiming that the law of God which defines sin had been swept aside by Christ. They even claimed this was true to Luther's theology. In his treatise, Against the Antinomians, Luther replied:
    It is most surprising to me that anyone can claim that I reject the law or the Ten Commandments. . . . I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child. . . .

    Or does anyone imagine that there can be sin where there is no law? Whoever abolishes the law must simultaneously abolish sin. If he permits sin to stand, he must most certainly permit the law to stand; for according to Romans 5 [:13], where there is no law there is no sin. And if there is no sin, then Christ is nothing. Why should he die if there were no sin or law for which he must die? It is apparent from this that the devil's purpose in this fanaticism is not to remove the law but to remove Christ, the fulfiller of the law.4
To think relationally means we must go outside of man to define what man is. And it means we must go outside of human behavior to define what sin is. This is stated simply and forcefully by Lutheran scholar Edward W. A. Koehler:
    The Bible defines sin as "the transgression of the Law," as "anomia," lawlessness (1 John 3:4). No deed, word, thought, or desire are in themselves sin, but become sin by being at variance with the Law of God. To eat the fruit of a tree seems to us a rather innocent matter, but since God had forbidden it, it was a sin to Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:17). When Saul spared Agag, the king of Amalek, and the best of the sheep and oxen for sacrifice, it looked like a humane and pious thing; yet God had commanded him to destroy Amalek utterly, and so it was a sin to spare them (1 Sam. 15). When at the exodus from Egypt the children of Israel borrowed jewels of silver and of gold from the Egyptians (Exod. 12:35, 36), without returning them, it was not a sin, because God expressly commanded them to do this (Exod. 3:22). Whether or not anything is a sin is not determined by what we think, or how we feel, about it, but solely by this: does it or does it not agree with the Word of God? Sin is not a physical, but a moral condition, and it consists in this that a given act, behavior, or condition of man is not what God wants it to be; it is nonconformity with the will of God. Thus, to sin means to do what God forbids (Gen. 2:17), or not to do what He enjoins (James 4:17), or not to be as He wants us to be (Lev. 19:2). Hence, with respect to the Law, sin is a departure from its rule; with respect to God, sin is disobedience to His will.

    Every departure from the Law is sin, whether this be great or small, known or unknown, intended or accidental, or even when it is against our will (Rom. 7:19). The question whether anything is or is not sin, is not determined by our personal opinion, our knowledge, our intention, or our will, but solely by this one fact, whether or not it is in agreement with the will of God. Our personal attitude may aggravate or mitigate our guilt, but it does not change the nature of the act or the conduct as a transgression of the Law. Even the good intention and purpose one may have, will not change an unlawful act into a lawful one (1 Sam. 15:1-26). We cannot sin to the glory of God (Rom. 6:1).5

We are not suggesting that we abandon the abstract definitions of sin. We need them too. Otherwise we may run to the opposite error and make sin appear as simply the transgression of a legal code of conduct. The violation of our relationship with God, expressed by disobedience to the law of God, must be seen as pride, selfishness, idolatry ("the lust for divinity"—Luther), rebellion, unbelief, ingratitude and enmity against God. These are abstract definitions of sin. But unless they are related to the concrete law of God, these abstract definitions can mean something different to everybody. What one calls pride, another may call dignity. Selfishness may well pass for prudence, or unbelief for broadmindedness.

When the creature refuses to submit to God's concrete commandments and chooses his own way, he manifests pride, selfishness, unbelief, rebellion, idolatry, ingratitude and hostility toward God.

It is not enough to talk about sin in an abstract way if sinners are to realize the gravity of their state of alienation and lostness. It is too easy for us to identify a right relationship with God with good feelings. Because "that which is rightly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15), the law of God must define a right relationship. The law should be used to make plain the concrete nature of the sinner's estrangement. To be out of harmony with God's law is to be out of harmony with the Lawgiver.

Sin As Guilt and Pollution.

Guilt and pollution are two different aspects of man's sinful condition. Like justification and sanctification, they should be distinguished but never separated. It is well known that while Roman Catholic theology sees sin mainly as pollution, Protestantism sees sin primarily in terms of guilt. While this may oversimplify the difference between these two streams of thought, it does pinpoint a very important aspect of the Catholic/Protestant debate.

If we think of sin chiefly in terms of a disease (pollution), salvation is reduced to healing the disease (sanctification). This illustrates what we said in the orientation. A faulty doctrine of sin leads to a faulty doctrine of salvation. If we are to arrive at a correct doctrine of sin and salvation, we need to think clearly and biblically about guilt and pollution.

There are always two aspects to human relationships:

1. Every important human relationship has a legal aspect—for example, marriage, sonship, citizenship, business partnership, church membership, club membership. Man's relationship with God is no exception. It is based on a binding legal arrangement called a covenant.

2. Then there is the existential or vital aspect of the relationship. The legal aspect of a marriage relationship may be good and secure, but the vital level may be marred by friction or difficulty. The justified believer has a right relationship with God which admits of no degrees because it is legally perfect. But on an existential or vital level he does not yet relate to God in perfect faith and unfaltering love.

The whole field of sin and salvation is often obscured because we fail to distinguish between our relationships on the legal and vital levels. For instance, someone may say, "Justification means being restored to a right relationship with God." If this means being adopted into the family of God and being made a citizen of His kingdom—a sonship and citizenship which are perfect and admit of no degrees—it is correct. But "right relationship" may also mean loving God, praising God and enjoying God as we should. This is sanctification—the vital relationship—and it should be distinguished from the legal relationship.

Sin is a matter of a wrong relationship, and this wrong relationship exists on both a legal and a vital level. This is why we must speak of sin as both guilt and pollution.

Guilt means demerit before the law. It is a legal conception. It has to do with a person's standing before the law. Sin is often spoken of in terms of debt (Matt. 6:12; 18:32; Col. 2:14). Man owes perfect righteousness to the law—in nature as well as in action. When he has not discharged this debt, he is guilty. To be guilty before the law means to be liable to the penalty of death (Rom. 6:23).

We could express this another way by saying that the law defines the ideal relationship with God, neighbor and the created order. When man falls short of this ideal relationship in any way, he is guilty before the law. He forfeits the blessings of the covenant and incurs its curses.

Guilt may be defined as man's legal standing of alienation. The guilty are legal aliens from the kingdom of God. They are legally estranged and enemies of God. We use the word legal not in a pejorative sense, but meaning lawful, rightful, just, proper, according to the rule of righteous law.

We must not only distinguish guilt from pollution. We must also distinguish the fact of guilt from the feeling of guilt. Fact and feeling are not the same. Real guilt is objective. It exists quite apart from a person's sense of guilt. A person may stand guilty before God's law but feel no guilt at all. On the other hand, he may feel guilty but not be guilty before the law of God. On this point of guilt, therefore, it is important that a person should not inquire of his feelings but of his standing before the objective law of God. Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists frequently refer to the great problem of guilt in human health. But they generally mean guilt in the psychological sense rather than in the biblical sense.

The sense of guilt results from the function of the human conscience. Because man is self-conscious, he is able to reflect upon himself. He sees himself in two different ways. He sees the self as he would like it to be and feels it ought to be. This is the only self he feels he can approve and accept. But he also sees the self as it actually is. When there is a gap between the two (the "ought" and the "is"), he is torn apart. He cannot approve and accept the self as it actually is. He sits in judgment upon it. He accuses and condemns it. He indulges in self-contempt and self-rejection. This causes self-alienation. Because he is ashamed of his real self, he may resort to masks and masquerades. He may create an image to hide his real identity. Material affluence, titles, degrees or religious profession may be used to mask his real self. But all this proves he is alienated from himself by his own conscience. Because he cannot truly accept and love himself, he cannot truly accept and love others. Self-alienation is reflected in alienation from others. He is driven to use others and the material world to seek status for himself and to prove he does not merit the verdict of his conscience. But then his conscience accuses him of his selfish use of others and the environment to gain status for himself. And so he is swept into a vicious and bitter whirlpool of alienation.

In the first step toward deliverance from the sense of guilt, the person sees his true guilt. Then faith in the gospel of Christ's atoning blood brings the verdict of justification from the highest court in the universe. When the sinner believes that this supreme court has acquitted and accepted him, he can acquit and accept himself. The conscience, like the lower court, bows before the verdict of the higher court. The conscience will never be satisfied until the believing sinner claims the verdict of the higher court (Heb. 9:14; 1 John 3:19-21).

The Christian is not one who never feels any guilt. The knowledge of God's law in the face of the holiness of Christ gives him an acute sense of his own sinfulness (Rom. 3:20). The gap between what he ought to be and what he is is not bridged by his life of new obedience even though he strives in the strength of the Spirit to be all that he ought to be. In fact, the tension between the "ought" and the "is" intensifies. But the Christian knows how to deal with the sense of guilt. By faith, and that continually, he applies the blood of Christ to the conscience. He bedecks himself with Christ's righteousness as if it were his own. Thus covered, he is able to look the law of God in the eye without shame.

Besides guilt, there is also the pollution of sin. Sin is not only a legal debt. It is represented as a reigning power which has taken possession of human nature. Our predicament is not just a matter of being burdened with a legal debt we cannot pay. We are stricken with a mortal disease for which we can find no cure (Isa. 1:5-6; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:14-25; Eph. 2:1-3). While guilt is the sinner's legal alienation, pollution is the spirit of alienation which has become a reigning power in human nature. Through his alienation from the kingdom of God, man has become the subject of Satan's dominion. As the lawful prey of Satan, he has been infected with the spirit of pride, rebellion, unbelief, selfishness, idolatry, ingratitude and hostility toward God. This spirit of alienation which controls human nature is not an essential property of human nature. It is a demonic element which has infected it.

. . . in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.—Eph. 2:2-3, RSV (see also 1 John 3:8).

When we follow Paul's presentation in the book of Romans, we find he deals with the problem of human guilt (justification) before he deals with the problem of healing the disease (sanctification). As guilt is objective, so is the remedy. Christ hung on the cross to pay the believing sinner's debt to divine justice (Rom. 3:25). Faith in the blood of Christ changes the sinner's legal relationship to God. God's imputation of righteousness for the believer's justification is not in itself a change within the sinner but a change in the way the sinner is regarded. Imputed righteousness is divine love in action. It is divine love accepting the unacceptable and ascribing excellence and value to those who confess they have nothing but degradation and shame.

This free gift of justification by the righteousness of what Another has done raises the question of practical ethics. Can the believer continue living in sin as if holiness of life were now irrelevant? (Rom. 6:1). Does God just count the believer holy and leave him enslaved to his unholy disease (moral condition) as he was before? We suggest that Paul links sanctification to justification in a way we generally overlook. In Romans 6:14 he declares, "For sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace." What he means is that when guilt is dealt with by forgiveness and the imputation of Christ's righteousness, the power of the disease is broken. Sin remains in the regenerate. But it will not reign where guilt is taken away by faith in the blood (Rom. 6:2).

According to Paul the power of sin stems from guilt and not the other way around. In Roman Catholic theology the sinner is said to become acceptable to God by the healing of the disease. But in Pauline and Reformation doctrine healing stems from being acceptable to God by the merit of the atonement.

We say again that the power of sin stems from guilt and not the other way around. This is why justification must take precedence over sanctification. Guilt means that the sinner is legally estranged from God. Being legally estranged, he is given over to the control of Satan's kingdom. The law of God actually consigns him to the prison house of sin (Rom. 11:32-33; Gal. 3:22). Sin in itself is not powerful. It gains its strength from the law of God (1 Cor. 15:56). Says the apostle, "But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead (Rom. 7:8).

Let us suppose a man is sentenced to hard labor. He is bound to miserable servitude by the law. So it is with the sinner. The law or justice of God hands him over to the bondage of a cruel master. The power which binds him to this service is the omnipotent law (Rom. 7:1-6). The way to come to terms with the enslaving power of sin, therefore, is to come to terms with the just demands of God's law. The sinner cannot meet those demands by anything he can do, not even by the Spirit's work in him. God has consigned him to the prison of disobedience until faith comes (Rom. 11:32-33; Gal. 3:22). When faith lays hold of the doing and dying of Christ, the law is satisfied. It no longer binds the sinner to the service of sin. Sin therefore loses its power over the justified.

Justification by grace ends the believing sinner's legal estrangement from God. It is a verdict for the believer and against the kingdom of Satan. By the decree of the Judge the believer is no longer an alien. He is adopted into the family of God. As long as he was a lawful subject of Satan's kingdom, sin had dominion over him. But in justification he is made a lawful subject of the kingdom of God. This gives God the right to give him His Spirit and to bring him under His charge and authority. Deliverance from the power of sin is therefore the effect of God's justifying verdict.

Sin As Universal.

Sin is common to all except Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:10-23; Heb. 7:26; 1 John 3:5). Not only have all sinned, but all keep falling short of God's glory.6 The prophets, apostles and saints of all ages confess themselves to be sinners (Ps. 143:2; Eccl. 7:20; 1 John 1:8).

It is important to realize this corporate nature of human sin. We are so inclined to think each individual lives his life in isolation as a separate island. This is not true. There is such a thing as race solidarity. We share a common heredity. Our lives are inseparably linked with others and would be impossible without others. Others, such as parents, children, lawyers and governmental officials, act for us and do many things on our behalf. We depend on others to build our bridges, print our newspapers, fly our transport and do countless things without which life could not continue.

In a very real sense the race is one, and God deals with the race as one. He has consigned all to sin and pronounced that there is none righteous.

For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all.—Rom. 11:32

But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.—Gal. 3:22.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one. . . . There is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.—Rom. 3:10-12.

"As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (Prov. 27:19). Just as we see our own image reflected in water, so we may see our own sinful hearts reflected in the life of every other sinner. We cannot reproach any man for anything of which we are not also guilty (Rom. 2:1). Wesley said, "Never did every sin appear in the . . . vilest wretch that ever lived. But look thou into thy nature, and thou mayest see all and every sin in the root thereof."7 This is frightful yet true. Though not in the flower but in the root, the sin of all men is in each of us. The law of God takes note of it and condemns us for it except we hide in the imputed righteousness of Christ. Just as by faith we believe we are righteous in Christ, so by faith we must believe we are sinners—and such radical sinners as God's Word declares us to be. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9).

The disordered environment of the world in which we live answers to the disordered nature we possess. Accidents, disease, frustration, futility and death are all about us. We live with them continually and suffer in our identification with the fallen environment. Yet we should see that God in His great mercy has given us an environment best suited to our condition. We suffer less in such an environment than we would suffer if the environment were perfect. We may picture for ourselves a perfect world where nothing disrupts or disappoints. But were it given us and we were the only imperfect thing in it, it would be unbearable torment. A perfect environment would intensify our suffering. God has made us as comfortable as possible.

This may give us some insight into the sufferings of Christ. His holiness, the refined sensibilities and perfections of His holy nature, made contact with a fallen world and life in a disordered environment a matter of great suffering for Him. Discord, disharmony, pain, disease and human sin were unspeakably painful to Him. He suffered in proportion to His holiness.

We do not become sinners because we have sinned. We sin because we are sinners. Sin entered the race through the fall of Adam, who was the head of the race. "By one man sin entered into the world. . . . By one man's disobedience many were made sinners" (Rom. 5:12,19).

There are three opinions which deny the full force of our sinful inheritance:

1. There is the Pelagian opinion, which says that children are born amoral—that is, neither depraved nor sanctified. The Scripture, however, declares we are conceived and born in sin.
    Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.—Ps. 51:5.

    The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.—Ps. 58:3.

    The imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth.—Gen. 8:21.

    That which is born of the flesh is flesh.—John 3:6.

    We . . . were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.—Eph. 2:3.
2. There is the opinion which says Adam separated the race from God and the Holy Spirit, and therefore we are deprived of the Holy Spirit in consequence of Adam's sin. Like most heresy, this is not wrong in what it affirms. It is wrong in what it denies. Man the sinner is not just deprived but depraved. Adam sold the race to an alien power. In consequence of the fall, human nature is not only bereft of the Holy Spirit but infected by another spirit, even the spirit of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). All men are tainted with positive evil and corrupted with the tendencies of pride, unbelief, selfishness, idolatry, rebellion and hostility to God.

3. There is the opinion which says that man inherits a corrupted nature but not the guilt of Adam's sin. In this theory it is sometimes said no one is guilty before the law until he actually commits sin. Or it is said a person is guilty before the law only because of his inherited depravity.

Even though this third view moves toward confessing the universal nature of sin, serious objections must be brought against it.

In the first place, this view is erroneous because it makes guilt spring from pollution rather than pollution from guilt. The logical end of this approach is to say that salvation comes by gaining the victory over sin.

In the second place, this view does not do justice to Romans 5:12-19. Paul is not here talking about the depravity of nature inherited because of Adam's sin. The context is our legal predicament rather than our moral disease. The apostle is talking about judgment, condemnation and justification. It is in Romans 7:14-25 that Paul moves on to discuss sanctification and man's moral disease.

In the third place, if Romans 5:12-19 deals with inherited pollution, Catholicism is right. For if condemnation comes by inheriting an evil nature, justification must come by an inward moral renewal. But this is not Paul's point in Romans 5:12-19. Just as we were condemned by the unrighteous act of Adam, an act in which we had no part, so we are justified by the righteous act of Jesus Christ, also an act in which we had no part. If the righteousness of the second Adam is imputed to us, it seems inescapable that the sin of the first Adam is imputed to us. On the other hand, if we were condemned by the transmission of his corrupt nature to us, we would be justified by the infusion of Christ's new nature into us. This, of course, is the soteriology of Romanism, and it is contrary to the Pauline doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness.

Our involvement in guilt by the sin of another is admittedly a difficult doctrine. It is offensive to our nature. There is only one doctrine more offensive, and that is the related doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness.
    It is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those, who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust. . . . Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves.8

However, if we understand that guilt is our legal standing, it helps us understand how the guilt of Adam is inherited. When Adam sinned, he did so as the covenantal head of the race. He acted for his posterity. If he obeyed, the blessings of the covenant would be theirs. If he disobeyed, the curses of the covenant would be theirs. Like the Hittite suzerainty treaties, the curses of the covenant fall on the children of the unfaithful vassal.

When Adam renounced his allegiance to God, he became a member of Satan's kingdom. It was inevitable that all his children would be born as legal aliens and enemies of the kingdom of God and therefore lawful subjects of His wrath. Let us suppose a young American citizen were to renounce the American flag and become a citizen of a foreign country. The children born in his house subsequent to his legal alienation from America would not be Americans but foreigners. This is not a biological inheritance (for the children might even look like Americans). It would be a legal inheritance. If America were at war with this foreign country, the children would be legal enemies of America.

Real guilt is not a subjective feeling. It is a person's legal relationship to God. By the sin of Adam all are born as aliens of the kingdom of heaven and enemies of God Himself. By inheritance they are wrongly related to God. They are born under a broken covenant and are subjects of His wrath quite apart from inheriting an evil nature. The evil nature is not the cause of God's curse but the result of it.

Therefore the children of Adam share his guilt and its consequences. "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned [in their representative]" (Rom. 5:12).9

Sin As a State As Well As an Action.

By now it should be clear that sin is not just what we do. It is more especially what we are. We commit acts of sin because we are sinners. We are born into the estate of the kingdom of Satan and are in a wrong legal relationship with God. As long as we are aliens, everything we do is sin. All our devotion, piety and religion are sin. Besides this legal alienation from God, we are infected with the spirit of alienation. By nature we are sinful. This is why Paul refers to our natural state as "the body of this death" or "sinful flesh" (Rom. 7:24; 8:3). If the law of God does not curse and condemn our nature, why does the apostle call it "sinful"?

Some people say the sinful nature does not make us sinners before God unless we give way to the sinful nature and commit an act of sin. They say the law of God does not demand a sinless nature, only sinless deeds. They then turn around and say Christ too had the sinful human nature common to all men, but He successfully resisted its tendencies and so committed no act of sin. This argument says too much. If the holy law of God does not curse and condemn man's sinful nature, if it does not demand holiness of nature as well as actions, then why call that nature "sinful flesh" or "sinful nature"? A thing is not sinful unless it is contrary to the law of God. It should also be apparent that if Christ must fulfill the law and satisfy all its demands on our behalf, His human nature must be as holy as the law requires.

It is true there is no condemnation for those who are "in Christ." Although they share the polluted nature common to all men and are often distressed because of it (Rom. 7:14-25), yet for Christ's sake this sin which is in them and merits their damnation is not imputed to them (Rom. 4:8). As long as they keep the faith and do not allow sin to reign over them, they are not condemned for what in itself is worthy of condemnation.

This is why the saints recognize that all they are and do is pleasing to God only through the imputed righteousness of Christ. Their most pious and devout deeds, including their prayers and praise, are defiled with the corrupt taint of the flesh. Unless covered with the righteousness of Christ, it would render them worthy of death and destruction.

Holiness not only means separation from evil and separation to God. It also means wholeness and completeness. It is what its family of words suggests: holy, wholesome, hale, health, healthy. That which is less than wholeness of human life is what the law of Moses calls defilement or uncleanness. The whole man in all his relationships was made in the image of God. Anything which falls short of that image, anything which mars the wholeness of human life, is sin. To praise God with any less fervor and ardor than the sinless seraphims is sin. Surely we owe as much praise to God as do those angels! But none of us gives it. That is sin. To live in any less than an ideal relationship to God, others and the world is sin. To fail to improve every moment of time and to develop our capacities to their fullest potential for the glory of God is sin. To ill treat our body or our environment is sin. To be less than the perfect image of God as God intended us to be is sin. Therefore sin is more what we are than what we do.

Sin As Total Depravity

When a person sins, the whole person sins, and the whole person will die for that sin unless he shows repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The gnostic element at Corinth thought the "spiritual" Christians could commit fornication without sinning. According to them the body was not the real man. Whatever the body did was supposed to be irrelevant. Not so, replied Paul. All must stand in judgment on their total existence. When sin is committed, the mind and the body are always participants.10

This holistic principle has vital implications:

It means that man is a sinner in the totality of his existence. Being a sinner in one area means he is a sinner in every area. There is not one part of his existence which he keeps intact and uncontaminated by sin as if he could stand before God, saying, "At least this part [my good intentions] is free from sin." There can be no such thing as plumbing beneath the sinful crust to discover the intrinsic good of human nature. The Bible does not deny that fallen man may have some good qualities or gifts. But they are all tainted and corrupted by sin. For instance, a sinner may have the good qualities of determination, ambition, imagination, creative genius and leadership. But he perverts these gifts by using them to glorify himself. Even the "good" is used in the service of evil. Good traits of character do not mitigate man's evil but aggravate it. He uses these gifts as an excuse for not repenting and giving his allegiance to God. His worst sin is the perversion of his good. He uses what are really the gifts of God to fight against God. The holistic view of man means the Reformers were right when they spoke about man's total depravity.11 Man is a sinner in the totality of his existence.

We have already seen that being human means to be related to God, to the community and to the material order. The holistic view of man means we cannot disrupt one relationship without disrupting all relationships. For example, when man first alienated himself from God, he became alienated from his human partner. Guilt caused Adam to blame his wife (Gen. 3:12). The Babel builders' isolation from God resulted in their isolation from one another (Gen. 11).

More than that, when man rebelled against the dominion of God, the created order rebelled against the dominion of man. The beasts became unsubmissive. The earth brought forth thorns and thistles. Instead of worshiping and serving the Creator, fallen man began to worship and serve the creature (Rom. 1:25).

Whoever wrongs God wrongs his neighbor and the environment too. And whoever lives in a wrong relationship with his environment sins against his neighbor and his God. This means that ecology and health are moral questions. Yet we Christians have often been guilty of limiting piety to our own private experience with the Lord.

A person may go to the doctor with a physical complaint when he really needs reconciliation with his brother and with his God. He may go to the priest or pastor for spiritual counsel when the source of his problem is overwork, overeating or the want of a good night's sleep.

Holism means we cannot violate one relationship without violating all. This is why the Bible can say, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). Righteousness, which is a right relationship (to God, neighbors and things), must be kept whole, intact and wanting nothing in every area, or it ceases to be righteousness altogether. There is no such thing as being partly righteous before God anymore than being partly sinful before God.

Holism means that fallen man can lay no claim to righteousness before God in any area of his existence. He is totally a sinner.

    The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.— Isa. 1:5-6.

Holism is the negation of perfectionism—the notion that believers may in this life receive enough "grace" to enable them to arrive at a state of personal sinlessness. Perfectionism can be supported only on dualistic premises. This is made clear in John Wesley's doctrine of perfectionism. He argued for the possibility of perfection on the grounds of a dichotomy of soul and body.

Some perfectionists admit that believers retain the sinful nature throughout this life but argue that by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit it is possible, even mandatory, to attain a sinless character before Jesus comes. But holism means that if a person is sinful in one area of existence, he is sinful in every area of existence. The essential unity of man means we cannot seal off a sinful nature in an isolated vacuum. There is an inevitable communion of the nature with the person. If the nature is sinful, so is the person. If there is one area or relationship which fails to reflect God's image fully, the whole man falls short of God's image. To fall short of God's glory is sin (Rom. 3:23). This is why the imputed righteousness of Christ must remain paramount. We can never reach a point in our fellowship with God where such fellowship does not rest entirely on the forgiveness of sin. Throughout life the saints must confess they are sinful mortals. They can approach a holy God only "by blood and incense." There must be Christian character by the impartation of the Holy Spirit. But apart from imputed righteousness it has no value with God.

Luther declared that the regenerate are simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinful). At first (in his Lectures on Romans) he said they were partly righteous and partly sinful. But when his theological position fully developed, he said the believer is totally righteous and totally a sinner. The Reformation doctrine of total depravity is not just a description of unbelievers. It is what every man except Jesus Christ is by nature. Believers, of course, do not make their sinful nature an excuse for sinful conduct. The sinful nature does not rule and dominate their lives as it does in the ungodly (Rom. 6:14; 8:1-17). Yet because the flesh always hinders them from doing what they would (Rom. 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17), they perfectly fulfill the law only by the forgiveness of sins. Even their good is contaminated with human imperfection. There is not one thing they do of which it can be said, "This deed or this phase of character is without sin." Unless God forgave what was still lacking in their most excellent virtues, unless Christ's imputed righteousness covered the human corruption which still clings to their holiest duties, they would be damned rather than blessed for their splendid attainments. Remove imputed righteousness from the saints and they are not a whit better than the greatest sinner. For what does it advantage a man who must reach the stars if he stands on Mount Everest? Will he not be as pathetically short of his goal as the man in the valley? Unless the imputed righteousness of Christ bridges the abyss which exists between the divine Majesty and the best in poor mortal existence, all alike must be cast into hell.

Holism means that as long as we are in this world, identified as we are with this old eon, we are always totally a sinner. But by identification with Jesus Christ we are at the same time totally righteous by a righteousness completely outside ourselves. Such are the implications of relational and holistic thinking.

(To be continued)



1 Ewald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 3:1301.
2 This distinction between sin and the substance of human nature is important for a true understanding of the incarnation of Christ.
3 The Wittenberg Door, no.39 (Oct.-Nov. 1977).
4 Martin Luther, Against the Antinomians, in Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan & Helmut T. Lehmann, American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 47:109-10.
5 Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, pp.62-3.
6 In Romans 3:23 the original Greek uses both the past and the present continuous tense.
7 John Wesley, Sermon, Bristol, Aug. 17,1757, in The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 9:462-64.
8 Pascal, Pensees, cited in Dallas M. Roark, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), p.174.
9 The second half of this text is not talking about all sinning after the example of Adam. The "and so" of Romans 5:12 means that the first part of the text— "by one man sin entered into the world"—is being restated.
10 We do not use mind and body here to mean two parts of the person. By mind we mean the thinking willing whole person. By body we mean the physical expression of the whole person.
11 Total depravity does not means sinner is as bad as he can be. It means there is no part of man's existence which has not become contaminated with sin.


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