A Biblical View of Sin – Part 9

A Biblical View of Sin – Part 9

A Biblical View of Sin
Part 9

The last issue was devoted to a brief exposition of Psalm 51, the great penitential prayer of King David after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his sin. Next, I would like to explore what the New Testament says about sin. The principle Greek word for sin used in the New Testament is hamartia: “to miss the mark, lose, not share in something.” It is close in meaning to the Hebrew word het, discussed in part 6 of this series.

Originally, hamartia had the connotation of an intellectual mistake. The Greek philosopher Aristotle placed it somewhere between injustice and misfortune: “an offence against the prevailing order, without evil intentions.” Gradually hamartia became associated with guilt as portrayed in Greek tragedies. Man is basically good, trapped by fate. Fate causes him to “miss the mark.”

Jesus’ Attitude Towards Sinners

Although this is a separate study that should take several issues to cover, we will only touch on the highlights. Note four observations:

1 – Jesus did not speak of sin and its nature, but only of its reality. Nowhere does He cover the material the Apostle Paul does in Romans 5-8. We learn of Jesus’ view regarding sin through His acts and sayings. He was conscious of being the Victor over sin.

2 – We catch a glimpse of what Jesus understood by sin in His parable of the Prodigal Son: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee…. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”[68] Sin includes leaving the authority of the Father and living for self, allowing the world to pollute with all manner of filth. The prodigal is aware of his alienation and lostness.

3 – Jesus tells us that He came for sinners, not for those who are righteous: “He said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous.”[69] Jesus does not suggest that some are sinful and some are righteous. Rather He teaches that all are in need of the Great Physician – some realize it and some do not.

4 – Jesus identified with and was called the friend of sinners: “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.”[70]

Paul’s Teaching on Sin

Primarily, the Apostle Paul in his epistles develops the rationale for Jesus’ coming. Paul makes frequent reference to his having received special revelation of the Lord Jesus after His Ascension.[71] His was not an empirical doctrine of sin based on pessimism, but the product of what God Himself taught him.

The Greek word for sin, hamartia, and its derivative (discussed above), occurs 215 times in the New Testament – 78 times in Paul’s letters and 55 times in Romans. It is the most frequently used term for sin in Romans 5-8.[72] There is no appreciable difference between how the Old Testament and the New Testament understands sin. In both it is the violation of God’s law or expectations.

Although Jesus radicalized the law in the Sermon on the Mount, He does not use the word “sin” in His message. As seen in an early issue, sin is the violation of God’s Law. The Golden Rule encompasses most sin against others: you sin whenever you treat people different from how you wish to be treated. Paul takes this theme and states it negatively: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things.”[73]

As you know, Romans 1-8 contains the most comprehensive analysis of sin in the New Testament. Here Paul differs from Judaism in that sin is not just an individual act, a violation of God’s law. For Judaism, sin is a free choice; for Paul it is something far more complex.

Paul’s conception of sin is theological and ethical only to the extent that conduct toward one’s neighbor stands under the claim of God. Paul sees sin as a state or condition that embraces/enslaves all humanity. He sees an indissoluble connection between the sin of Adam and the death of all men. Man does not inherit Adam’s sin. Rather, judgment is pronounced upon all because of Adam’s sin. By way of contrast, in the Old Testament, you find no call for individual conversion and deliverance from the power of sin; the Old Testament writers do not draw the same conclusions as Paul, pertaining to the sin of Adam. They taught that if, as the people of God, you keep the law, all is well.

In the Part 2 we looked at Genesis 3-11 and the imputed sin of Adam. You will remember that “imputation” in this context does not appear in the Old Testament. Only Paul discusses it in the New Testament – briefly in I Corinthians 15 and more thoroughly in Romans 5:12-21. Romans 6-8 deals with sanctification and the part sin plays in the life of the believer.

The question of what constitutes legitimate expectations regarding the believer’s sanctification in Christ was hotly debated in the fifth century, principally between Augustine and Pelagius. We will look at this debate again in the next issue, but let me underline the critical role it played in the history of the Christian movement. What did Paul mean when he said, “For in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive?”[74]

Pelagius argued that Christ reversed the effect of Adam’s sin for all people, and all now stand as Adam did before the fall. Visualize people jumping into the pit of hell. In like manner they can climb out. They are free from the moral necessity of sinning. In Christ, people are capable of not sinning.

Augustine argued that “all” means “represented by.” All did not die in Adam, only those represented by Adam did. For example, because Jesus was born of a virgin without the seed of a man, Christ did not have Adam’s imputed sin; Adam did not represent Christ. So too, “all” are not “made alive” by Christ. People can jump into the pit of hell as an act of their own volition, but they cannot climb out. Only Christ can pull them out, and He does not pull everyone out.

Romans 6:6-7 captures the essence of the debate: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.” What does Paul mean, “he that is dead is freed from sin?” Augustine said that man is “free from sin” in a legal, but not a moral sense. Just as the believer’s sin was imputed to Christ, so Christ’s righteousness was imputed to him. Paul talks about our position in Christ, not our experience.

“For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”[75]

Pelagius argued that these words of Paul refer to the non-Christian. Augustine said they represent the experience of the follower of Christ; you cannot understand Romans 6-8 without carrying forward Paul’s teaching on imputation.

This raised the question of how you define sin. Pelagius said only that which involves the will can be considered sin. If the will is not involved, you cannot call it sin; ability limits obligation. “If I ought, I can.” Man must have the ability to do and be whatever God demands of him. Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[76] If Jesus commands that you be perfect, you can be perfect – as perfect as your “heavenly Father.”

This is the doctrine of the free will of man. Free will is the power to choose between good and evil at all times, every moment of a person’s life. Whatever you do not will, you are not morally responsible for. Sin is only the deliberate choice of evil. Therefore, all people everywhere are equally the recipients of God’s grace. You can make no distinction between common grace and special grace.

Augustine countered that although sin involves the will, it involves much more. Anger, indifference, covetousness, selfishness, etc. bypass the will, but still must be considered sin. For example, a man awakens preoccupied with business and treats his family with indifference. On the way to work he realizes what he did and phones his wife to apologize. Pelagius would say that this is not sin.

The doctrine of Pelagius was condemned in the west at the Council of Carthage in AD. 412 and 418, and in the east at the Council of Ephesus in AD. 431. Most of the church embraces the Augustinian view and it became the position of the Roman Church and most of Protestantism. Pelagius’ views influenced the Dutch theologian Arminius, and in turn John Wesley. Methodism, much of Pentecostalism and the Holiness movement embrace the basic theology of Pelagius.


In the next issue we will finish looking at Romans 6-8 and briefly explore how John views sin in his writings.

In the bonds of Christ,


[69] Matthew 9:12-13
[70] Matthew 9:10
[71] Cf., e.g., Galatians 2:2, II Corinthians 12:1-4
[72] Hamartia and its derivatives are found 47 times in John’s writings, 25 times in Hebrews, and 65 times in the rest of the New Testament. In the Synoptics it is used as a noun, almost exclusively as the forgiveness of sin.
[73] Romans 2:1-2
[74] Cf. Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:22
[75] Romans 7:15-24
[76] Matthew 5:48