‘If you have not learned about sin,’ writes J.I. Packer, ‘you cannot understand yourself, or your fellowmen, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith.’
The Bible (apart from the first two chapters) is about God’s answer to sin.
It is not easy to have clear views about sin, because
- the biblical doctrine of sin is uncomplimentary to us
- the biblical doctrine of sin emerges from the biblical doctrine of God’s holiness, and there is little understanding of that
- the biblical doctrine of sin has been secularised; the word has ceased to convey the tought of an offence against God
The nature of sin. Sin means missing a target, failing to reach a standard, failing to obey an authority. Sin always has reference to God. ‘Sin is going contrary to God, retreating from God, turning one’s back on God, defying God, ignoring God.’ Sin is ‘playing God’.
The state of sin. According to Rom 3, sin is universal. This is explained in terms of the solidarity of mankind in Adam, 1 Cor 15:22. Sin is
- a state of condemnation. God is Judge and lawgiver, Eze 18:20. Apart from Christ all stand under the sentence of death. We are condemned both for our own sins, and because of our solidarity with Adam.
- a state of defilement. God is the Holy One, Isa 6:3-5. We are unclean.
- a state of depravity. We have fallen from the image of God in which we were made. Now ‘man’s mind is darkened to spiritual things, this will is alienated from God’s will, his conscience is insensitive to God’s voice.’ We bear, not God’s image now, but Satan’s, Jn 8:44; Mt 13:38; Acts 13:10; 1 Jn 3:8. This depravity is ‘total’, not in the sense that everything in man is as bad is it could be, but that nothing in man is as good as it should be.
- a state of inability. God is Lawgiver. The law has not changed since the fall, but our ability to obey it has, Rom 8:7f.
- a state of wrath. God is King. We are his enemies, Rom 5:10 and stand under his wrath, Rom 1:18.
- a state of death, Eph 2:1.
The knowledge of sin. Many things – religion included – can mask and obscure the reality of personal sin, Psa 36:2.
To know sin in oneself means far more than to realise that one is not quite perfect. It means recognising the motives that fuel so much of everyday life – self-assertion, self-advancement, self-justification, self-gratification, Jer 17:9f. It means realising that these motives reveal the real self. It means realising that we cannot please or obey God. It means realising that we need forgiveness.
Knowledge of sin comes through the law, Rom 3:19f. The law
- identifies sin, defining and picturing it
- stirs up disobedience, Rom 7:7f
- condemns the disobedience it stirs up
Luther: ‘As long as sins are unknown, there is no room for a cure, and no hope of one…The law is therefore necessary to give knowledge of sin, so that proud man, who thought he was whole, may be humbled by the discovery of his own great wickedness, and sigh and pant after the grace that is set forth in Christ.’ See Gal 3:24.
Note that Jesus is not only grace incarnate, but also law incarnate; his life and teaching both instruct and condemn us.
The deceitfulness of sin. Sin entices us both into wrongdoing and into the opinion that wrongdoing does not matter, Eph 4:22; Heb 3:13. Temptation exploits both our weaknesses and our strengths. Sin allures us into ethical relativism. Sin paralyses our minds by offering us dazzling rewards, James 1:14f. Sin leads to hardening of the conscience, Heb 3:13; Eph 4:18f; 1 Tim 4:2. ‘Habit produces hardening, and hardening, insofar as it destroys the sense of sin, rules out the possibility of repentance.’ Psalm 139:23f.
Based on J.I. Packer, God’s Words, IVP 1981,