What is sin? Where did it come from? How is it transmitted?

(Note: This is a practice exam response and is sketchy in some places)

Scripture presents the history of how humanity is separated from God because of their sin, and how God orchestrates a plan in order to remedy humankind’s state. But what is sin, and how has it come to us today?

1. A definition of sin

In Western culture, it is common to talk about certain socially harmful activities as sins – smoking, overeating and so on. However, biblical sin must be understood primarily in reference to God, not to personal or community standards. Therefore, Grudem summarises biblical sin as: “Any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude or nature.” This definition covers not only things we do which go against what God requires of us, such as lying, stealing or committing adultery (Ex 20:2-17), but extends to sinful thoughts such as anger (Mt 5:22) or lust (Mt 5:28), and even our very essence (Eph 2:3, Rom 5:8).

The Bible describes sin using many different words and pictures. The most common term for sin in the Bible (OT: חתא; NT: ἁμαρτια) carries the meaning of missing the mark, or falling short of something. While the idea of sin as falling short is most well-known, it is by no means the only one in the Bible. Since sin is our disposition before a Holy God, it can variously stated and described, depending on which aspect of God a writer is presenting. For example:
– If God is King, sin is rebellion (OT: פשׁע)
– If God is Husband, sin is adultery (e.g. Hosea 1:2, Ezekiel 16)
– If God is Judge, sin is lawbreaking (NT: ανομια, παραβασις)
– If God is Glory, sin is idolatry (e.g. Romans 1:23)
– If God is Wisdom, sin is foolishness (e.g. Proverbs)
– If God is Holy, sin is impurity or uncleanness (e.g. Leviticus, Isaiah 6)
The variegated images of sin in the Bible underscores both its ubiquitous nature, but also the limits of employing a single definition.

Despite sin’s variegated nature, there are three core characteristics of sin: a distrust of God’s Word (Gen 3:1), a misplaced desire (Gen 3:6a), and consequently a disobedience of God’s Word (Gen 3:6b). The prototype transgressions of Adam and Eve is seen time and time again throughout the biblical narrative – in the lives and actions of the patriarchs, arrogant judges, adulterous kings, disobedient Israel and bloodthirsty nations, and through to the moral depravity of our own generation. Behind every sin is a desire to displace God with something else that absorbs our heart and affections more – whether ourselves (i.e. pride) or something else (i.e. idoltary). Romans 1:18-32 offers an anatomy of sin, where the worship of the Creator is replaced with the worship of creation, resulting in a corrupt state that is beyond our own ability to remedy.

2. The origin of sin

Where did sin come from? To affirm the good and just character of God (Deut 32:4) we must clearly affirm that God Himself is not responsible for sin. Rather, each person is “tempted when, by his own desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” (James 1:14) Yet we should not say either that sin is some kind of eternal power equal to God (i.e. dualism). If we assume the truthfulness of the historical fall of Adam and Eve (3:1-16, see also 2 Cor 11:3), then sin originated with them – firstly with the distrust, covetousness and disobedience of our first parents, yet also inside every subsequent human heart (Mk 7:20-23). Yet by assigning the responsibility to humanity, we are not then placing sin outside the foreknowledge or providence of God (who works all things according to the counsel of his will, Eph 1:11). While God is not the author of sin, He has permitted sin in His world with a predetermination to overcome it at great cost to Himself, through the cross of Jesus Christ.

3. The transmission of sin

There are a number of ways in which the sin of the first humans described in the Bible (Gen 3:1-16) affects us today. The first is that, because of Adam’s sin, all humans inherit a sinful nature (depravity). Oliver Crisp calls this “the morally vitiated condition from which all subsequent human beings suffer.” The Bible presents this inherited sinful nature as a matter of fact. For example, David, while confessing his sin, mentions in Psalm 51:5 that “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The Apostle Paul notes that prior to our salvation by grace, we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3). Because of God’s kindness and restraint through civil laws, societal norms and our own consciences, this “inherited tendency” to sin does not mean that every human being is as bad as they could be. Yet without the work of Christ, every person is “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Eph 4:18)

The second way which Adam’s sin affects us today is that all humans share in Adam’s guilt – though Christians differ on their views regarding the nature of our relationship with Adam’s sin. Some argue that we inherit both Adam’s sinful nature and his guilt (Federal View). The clearest passage outlining that we inherit his guilt is Romans 5:12-21. While comparing Jesus with Adam, Paul states that “Just as the result of [Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all men…” (Rom 5:18a), and that “just as through the disobedience of the man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Rom 5:19) Paul’s point is that Adam served as our legal representative before God, and we are counted culpable before him (just as in Christ we can be counted righteous through faith in Him).

Some disagree that Adam serves as our federal head – often because of a moral or legal objection to the idea that Adam’s sin is imputed directly to the rest of humanity who were not there to “sin with him”. Instead, some argue that Adam’s guilt was transmitted to us because we were united to him in a real sense – we were actually in Adam when he sinned (Realist View). In this view, we are either literal chips off the block of Adam (the individualised nature argument), or were pre-existentially united to him (the fission / “Interstellar” argument), or share in his nature directly as members of the human race (the participation argument). Still others would argue that Adam’s guilt was not shared with us, but only his morally deficient nature (the Zwinglian view).

The overriding concern from those who reject the Federal View seems to be a sense of legal injustice – how can I be held guilty for Adam’s sin? This objection fails to recognise that we are also guilty before God in a real sense because we have sinned ourselves: “For there is no difference: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom 3:23) The charge of unfairness could also apply to Christ serving as our righteous representative – how is that fair either? So an appeal to our limited sense of fairness cannot be the only criteria for assessing this point. The Bible itself does not speculate extensively on whether this sin is mediately or immediately imputed to us, but simply acknowledges that humanity shares in both Adam’s sinful nature (Rom 5:12, 17) and his guilt (Rom 5:16, 18). How marvellous it is then for God to orchestrate the reversal of sin’s penalty and effects “through the one man, Jesus Christ”! (Rom 5:17)


(Time: 2 hours… too long!)

Sources and helpful links

  • Adams, Mark. “Doctrine of Sin.” NT601 The Knowledge of God (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Grudem, Wayne. “Sin.” Pages 490-514 of Systematic Theology. Leiceister: IVP, 1994.
  • Crisp, Oliver. “Sin.” Pages 194-215 of Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic. Edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
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