The Nature of Sin and Pagans

I’d like to thank the Particular Baptist team for the review of the article and edits.


A doctrine that is a core tenant of “Calvinists” is the “T” in TULIP: Total Depravity. This so-called acronym is nowhere found in the high Reformed or even among Calvin’s known writings but is a summary of certain tenants of the Reformed faith. The “T” focuses on man’s moral condition. He is morally bankrupt and does nothing morally good in the eyes of God. This then raises some questions. How can a Christian have interaction with an unbeliever if all they do is truly sinful? Are we not participating in their wickedness if Total Depravity is true? What are we to make of actions pagans do that seem good?

What Is Sin?

It is first proper to identify what sin is in order to understand how it works in men. Sin is of a corrupting nature meaning it takes that which is good and warps it. Romans 3:23 says that we have “fallen short of the glory of God.” Our sin causes us to miss that standard that God has set. We also have 1 John 3:4 which says that “sin is lawlessness.” Sin is the lack of law, not the presence of it, meaning that sin is a privation of good. And not just any good, but where good is morally obligated to be. 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.

Dolezal, James. “Agency, Concurrence, and Evil: A Study in Divine Providence.” Journal of IRBS Theological Seminary, 11 Dec. 2019, p. 78.

Since evil does not exist as a substance, it can’t be said to exist as created being. Something that exists substantially exists positively and can’t properly be said to be a privation as Scripture makes sin out to be. Therefore, sin cannot exist substantially. There is more to this though. Sin is not a mere privation but also corrupts the good. I will quote Turretin at length on this from his Institutes:

Hence it follows that the formal reason of sin consists in anomia and privation, denoting the want of the rectitude or goodness which ought to be in the rational creature according to the prescription of the law (whether it belongs to the nature or qualities or actions themselves, for it deprives all these of conformity with the law and so constitutes them guilty of sin). But this privation is not pure or simple, but corrupting; not idle, but energetic; not of pure negation, but of depraved disposition, by which not only is the due rectitude taken away, but also an undue unrectitude and a depraved quality laid down, infecting all the faculties. Just as a physical disease is not only a removal of the temper of the humors, but also a corrupt disposition and disorder (dyskrasia) of them, so sin (which holds the relation of a moral disease of the soul) is not only the negation of a good, but the position of a corrupt disposition. Therefore inasmuch as it is the want of righteousness that ought to be in, it is well called privation; even so, inasmuch as it taints and corrupts the soul, it is called a corrupt quality and is usually described as a stain and disease. Hence Thomas Aquinas: “As bodily sickness has something of privation, inasmuch as the equality of health is taken away, and has something positive (viz., the humors themselves inordinately disposed), so original sin … is not a pure privation, but a certain corrupt habit” (ST, I–II, Q. 82*, Art. 1, p. 956).

Turretin, Francis. “Ninth Topic: Sin in General and in Particular.” Institutes of Elenctic Theology, edited by James T Dennison, translated by George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1, P&R Publishing , Phillipsburg, NJ, 1997, p. 592.

Sin is twofold: it is a privation of the good where it should be, but it is also a depravity of the good. The good is distorted hence it misses the mark. Given sin is a privation, it cannot come from God, nor can it have been created by God. It has to only come from the creature. Hence, we can say that sin is only the creature’s “fault” and not God’s. God can’t create that which doesn’t exist substantially. God only creates the good. This similarly applies to God’s decree. God did not decree sin positively. I believe He decreed it by omission. God can only actively decree the good or we could say that God is the author of sin. So, all He positively decrees is nothing but the good, but He doesn’t decree the moral good in every place ergo sin. In other words, God is only decreeing the good, yet evil is a result of God decreeing the good in a way that omits moral good where it should be prescriptively in that creature. This means that no matter what good God decrees and creates is by necessity consistent with His nature which is holy. The lack of good that God did not decree in whatever positive, substantial being He created does not take away from the fact that what He positively decreed and created is good by necessity. Whether God decrees all the potential good in a creature or only some of it does not take a way from the fact that God is still only decreeing the good. Our bodies are still perfect as far as bodies go even if they are morally corrupted by the lack of moral good in our spirits. This keeps us in biblical parameters and away from Gnosticism (that matter is evil, yet spiritual is good). Turretin again:

Although all things are said to be necessary from the decree, God cannot on this account be reckoned the author of sin. The decree which is the cause of the futurition of sin is nevertheless neither its physical cause (by the infusion of evil) nor its ethical cause (by the approbation of it). So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive.

Turretin, Francis. “Fourth Topic: The Decrees of God in General and Predestination in Particular.” Institutes of Elenctic Theology, edited by James T Dennison, translated by George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1, P&R Publishing , Phillipsburg, NJ, 1997.

God’s decree is only permissive and directive of evil. Nowhere in the decree will you find a positive declaration of evil nor do we see God willing evil into effect in His perfect, simple will. Yet, I think we can say that in as much as God did not decree moral good in a creature he decreed evil. He permitted it. Not by actively desiring sin, but simply not decreeing moral good in something that is, qua itself, perfect. Clearly, it was God’s plan to not decree moral good in creatures. Nehemiah Coxe, one of the signers of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, said this:

Amongst things future, some are good, some are evil, viz. morally. Those that are good God decreed to effect, those that are evil, to permit, or suffer to be done…

Coxe, Nehemiah. “Chapter V.” Vindiciæ Veritatis, London, 1677, p. 91.

Same kind of language being used here by Coxe as found in Turretin. God decreed to permit evil but not decree to effect. Evil is permissive, never active in God’s workings in the world. This is consistent with sin being a privation of moral good and not existing as a substance as it would need to be if God actively decreed it. Coxe would go onto say that God uses sin to His glory. We can say that God does this in spite of its “nature”.

Pagans and Evil

Now that we have discussed the nature of evil and God’s decree surrounding it, how does this play into the topic of this article? How we understand evil and God’s workings with it, helps us to understand how we can interact with pagans who do nothing but evil. Pagans will always do that which is evil.

“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.””

Romans‬ ‭3‬:‭9‬-‭12‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

The text is clear: whatever man does is always evil. How can this be given man does things that are outwardly good? Man does indeed do things that are consistent with God’s law outwardly, yet they aren’t doing them to the glory of God. In other words, they are missing the mark which is the nature of evil itself. Scripture does call some actions of evil men “good” in some sense (Romans 13:3). But ultimately they miss the mark even if outwardly they conform to the letter of God’s law.

The virtues of the heathen can be according to the law with regard to the substance of work; although against the law with regard to mode of operating (which in many ways wanders from it).

Turretin, Francis. “Ninth Topic: Sin in General and in Particular.” Institutes of Elenctic Theology, edited by James T Dennison, translated by George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1, P&R Publishing , Phillipsburg, NJ, 1997.

The form of the act of the pagan can be consistent with God’s law. One can abstain from stealing, not covet their neighbor’s goods, and speak the truth. Yet, the form of it is still missing the mark of God’s ultimate standard. God requires perfection not only in outward action, but in the heart, and the pagan not only does outward acts that miss the mark, but does not do them for the right reasons. If this is the case though how can one properly interact with unbelievers? How can we condone certain actions in pagans and work with them in our daily lives? Wouldn’t this mean that we are helping them in their sin? This requires us to dive deeper into the nature of evil and the good. If evil is the privation and corruption of the good morally speaking, everything else must be either moral good or substantial good in and of themselves. This includes the actions qua actions of men.

The sinfulness of sin is not in the being or movement of sinful creatures, otherwise we could rightly charge God with its authorship insomuch as all creatures move and have their being immediately in and through God.

Dolezal, James. “Agency, Concurrence, and Evil: A Study in Divine Providence.” Journal of IRBS Theological Seminary, 11 Dec. 2019, p. 80.

Dolezal goes on to discuss that God moving the creatures will, even an evil one, does not impute privation to God. We exist and move from God (this is what it means to be “in” Him as Acts 17:28 states). If our movement is from God, that cannot include sin. God only moves to the good and sin is only coming from what He does not move the creature to, morally speaking. Therefore, the actions of men, as an action, are good. If the actions of men are good, then to interact with an unbeliever and participate with him in those things which are good according the God’s law is not evil. However, from the pagan’s perspective the action is sinful in as much as they are not doing the good to the right end. The corruption is in the pagan alone, not in the act itself which the Christian is engaging in with the pagan. This distinction between the act itself and the form of it allows us to consistently live in the world as Christians without falling prey to the deformity of the pagan’s good actions. This also means that being exposed to sinful acts is not going corrupt Christians per se since the corruption comes from within (Mark 7:20-23) and the act itself being good cannot do anything to them negatively. This does not mean that we cannot be influenced by those close to us to do things that are sinful but properly speaking, corruption is only in each person and not in anything outside of them. We can live in this pagan world consistent with God’s law without being defiled everywhere we turn. Our God is holy.


This may seem like a heady article and it some sense it is. The so called, “problem of evil” has been discussed on multiple occasions throughout church history. What we do have though is a consistent tradition that does seek to make sense out of these difficult realities. One that, with Scripture, helps us to navigate these murky and restless waters. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we can walk among the pagans in a way that is honoring to God and be a blessed witness to Him in the process.

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