Sin. That accursed “thing” that haunts the human race. It has corrupted our nature, keeps us from God, and proves us to be vile. No human can escape it and it clings to even the best of Christians. But do we really consider what sin IS? Is it something that is part of God’s creation? Where did it come from? These are questions that can be raised as we think of sin. Our answers to the above questions can lead us to error if we do not get this doctrine right, especially as it relates to the doctrine of God. So, what is sin exactly?
Sin has been seen by the Reformed community historically as the lack of that which is good. The following are some quotes from those who held to this view in Protestant Orthodoxy:
But what, then, is original sin? According to the Apostle it is not only the lack of a good quality in the will, nor merely the loss of man’s righteousness and ability. It is rather the loss of all his powers of body and soul, of his whole outward and inward perfections. In addition to this, it is his inclination to all that is evil, his aversion against that which is good, his antipathy against light and wisdom, his love for error and darkness, his flight from and his loathing of good works, and his seeking after that which is sinful.Martin Luther from Commentary on Romans
Therefore original sin is seen to be an hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature diffused into all parts of the soul . . . wherefore those who have defined original sin as the lack of the original righteousness with which we should have been endowed, no doubt include, by implication, the whole fact of the matter, but they have not fully expressed the positive energy of this sin. For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
What is sin?
Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 14, emphasis added
This may seem like a very strange way to think of sin. Sin is not typically presented in modern evangelicalism as that which is lacking in that which is created (image-bearing humans). But just as darkness is the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat, so is sin the absence of good, and as Luther and Calvin note, it produces evil action. James Dolezal notes,
…what is evil? The short answer is that evil is the absence of good where good ought to be. It is a privation of good and a failure to hit the mark. It is not a substantial thing that exists in its own right…This defect can be a failure of commission insofar as one aims at some good in an illegitimate and idolatrous way. Or it can be a failure of omission insofar as one neglects to seek and do the good that is required of him or her. Both are ways of missing the mark…In what exactly does the evil of any sinful intent or action consist? This is a difficult question as pure evil never exists in its own right. It requires something good in order to be, just as an accident requires a substance to be. Historically, the answer given to this question is that the evil of sin does not lie in the material action itself, but rather in the form of it. Sin is not reducible to the agents and actions by which it is committed. The instruments and actions of sin are in themselves, as creatures and as actions, good.James Dolezal from Agency, Concurrence, and Evil: A Study in Divine Providence
Where do we find Biblical support for this view of sin? We would be remiss if we did not ground this view in Scripture (our final authority in faith and practice) and merely based it on the “Reformed tradition”. We now turn our focus to two different passages:
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.1 John 3:4 (ESV)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)
In 1 John, we see an explicit declaration of what sin is. This is not ambiguous language that could be taken arbitrarily, but language that lays out precisely what the Apostle wants his readers to understand. In context, John is discussing what it means to be a Christian. He is contrasting what a Christian is with one who is an unbeliever. The believer obeys God’s commandments (2:3-4), and while they will not be perfect in this life (1:8-10), there will be a normative lifestyle of righteousness that they will live (3:6, 9-10). John is saying that those who do that which is evil are acting lawless or doing something that lacks the good. This is what it means to break God’s law. The underlying word for “lawlessness” here is ἀνομία which means “lawlessness; especially disobedience to the divine law, sin.” (A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament) We see here that this is not simply a translation imposing a view of sin upon it, but that the original language captures this idea as well: that sin is the LACK of law, i.e. that which is good.
This same principle is laid out in Matthew 7 where Jesus discusses false converts with a focus on false teachers. The declaration is one of condemnation. There will be those on the Day of Judgement who will use intimate language with our Lord and act like they know Him very personally. They will even point to works they did for Him. But because they lived a life of rebellion to His law, they will be cast out. Their acts are defined as “lawlessness” and, interestingly enough, the underlying Greek word is the same one that John uses in 1 John 3:4: ἀνομία. Sin, again, is being defined here. It is that which is void of good. A lack of good.
Why must sin be defined in this cerebral way? Does it seem like semantic gymnastics to produce this view of evil? The problem is that if sin is defined as an actual entity, it creates problems with the question of sin’s authorship. The Scripture says that God created all things and there is nothing that is in this earth that He did not create (John 1:3, Colossians 1:16). The language is all inclusive in these two passages, and in Colossians 1:16 Paul goes further in his qualification of what “all things” means by saying “in heaven and on earth,” “visible and invisible”. Sin is not something we are able to touch, see, or feel. If it was an entity, would it not fall into this category of “all things”? Herman Bavinck notes,
If sin were a substance, there would exist an entity that either was not created by God or was not caused by God. Sin, accordingly, has to be understood and described neither as an existing thing nor as being in things that exist but rather as a defect, a deprivation, an absence of the good, or as weakness, imbalance, just as blindness is the deprivation of sight.Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, page 136
If sin is not an entity, but simply the lack of that which is good, then God could not have created sin and is not its author. God cannot create non-being. Does this answer all the questions of sin’s authorship? No, it does not, but it tells us what sin’s authorship is NOT.
This has been a brief overview of the nature of sin, although much more could be said. This may seem like a technical discussion, but being precise in our language about theology is very important in order to avoid error. May we have the same mindset of those orthodox men who came before us who painstakingly laid out Biblical doctrine for us.