What is Sin? (sermon)

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Here is a lesson I gave to my students on sin. I explained sin in terms of an inherited disease, which causes us to lack the ability to obey and love God as we ought. An important aspect of salvation, then, is the salvation of the human nature in Christ. It’s one of my favorites:

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The Original Justice and Sin Debate

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As you might be able to tell from recent posts, I’ve been studying original justice and sin as of late, from different traditions.

What many may not know, is there is a disagreement between the Catholic/Eastern church and the Reformed church over the state of Adam pre fall and post fall. Both agree that Adam was in a state of justice and righteousness before the fall. And both agree that mankind fell in Adam.

However, the Reformers differed on Adam’s state in original justice, and especially on mankind’s state after the fall, from the Catholic church. Luther and Calvin wrote much on their disagreements on mankind’s pre and post fall states.

With that said, what is the main difference between the Catholic church and Reformed?

Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, aptly lays out the disagreement here:

The doctrine of [Catholic church] as to the original state of man agrees with that of Protestants, except in one important particular. They hold that man before the fall, was in a state of relative perfection; that is, not only free from any defect or infirmity of body, but endowed with all the attributes of a spirit, and imbued with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and invested with dominion over the creatures. Protestants include all this under the image of God; the Romanists understand by the image of God only the rational, and especially the voluntary nature of man, or the freedom of the will. They distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained. Protestants, on the other hand, hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy. This, however, may be considered only a difference as to words. The important point of difference is, that the Protestants hold that original righteousness, so far as it consisted in the moral excellence of Adam, was natural, while the Romanists maintain that it was supernatural.

Now what is Hodge saying here? What he is describing, is that fact that the Catholic church distinguishes between the “image of God” (man in his natural state), and Adam’s state of original justice. For them, Adam’s state of righteousness and relationship with God was something supernatural, rather than something within his nature; it was an endowment given above and beyond his natural state. Thus, Adam’s original righteousness and justice was preternatural. It was a gift of God, infused into the soul of Adam at the point of creation, which made him more than a creation; it made him a divine son with divine qualities.

What is to be noted here, is that Catholics argue that without this supernatural endowment, Adam would have been subject to death and temptation. Matter, by definition, is subject to change, breakdown, and finitude. And thus even the universe itself would be subject to constant breakdown without supernatural intervention. Adam was thus unfused with supernatural life, enabling him to live beyond his naturally created state.

In contrast, Protestants hold that Adam’s state of righteousness was something natural to him. Adam’s righteousness was the “image of God”; something he was created with. And so he was created naturally righteous, naturally immortal, naturally in fellowship with God. Had Adam not rebelled, he would have lived confirmed as he was. He possessed within himself that life and righteousness which God desired.

This disagreement, as would be expected, flows into one’s understanding of original sin. Both the Catholic and Protestant tradition agree that something fundamental happened to the entire human because of Adam’s sin. Adam fell, but from what? And how does it affect us?

Protestants, logically hold from the position that Adam was naturally righteous, that mankind fell from an upright nature. As Hodge says, Protestants “hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy”. In other words, the human nature became cursed and depraved as a result of the fall.

As a result, humans, while still containing the image of God in some form, are said to be born marred and defaced in their nature. Man then operates from this broken nature; and thus sinful desires, thoughts, and actions spring from this depravity.

In contrast, Catholics hold that, rather than falling into a depraved nature, mankind fell from this supernatural grace which endowed them with eternal life. Hodge says,

[Catholics] distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained

Mankind lost the grace which upheld them, but the human nature is retained. In other words, human nature is not defaced; rather, it is only deprived of the grace which upheld it. Thus, mankind is evicted, as it were, from God’s life, and left to death and sin.

Catholic Taylor Marshall distinguishes the difference such:

The Catholic Church teaches that Adam and Eve were constituted in grace prior to the Fall … The Catholic Church teaches that Adam “fell from grace”; where as some Protestants teach “Adam did not fall from grace, because he wasn’t sinful and was therefore not in a state of grace.” This begs the question: If Adam “fell”, then from what did he fall? It seems that the answer is that Adam fell from nature (source)

Catholics, would then not hold to total depravity. However, they would add that human nature is wounded in several ways:

The fall of Adam and Eve brought the “four wounds” to human nature. These are enumerated by St Bede and others, especially St Thomas Aquinas (STh I-II q. 85, a. 3):
  1. Original sin (lack of sanctifying grace and original justice)
  2. Concupiscence (the eleven passions are no longer ordered perfectly to the soul’s intellect)
  3. Physical frailty and death
  4. Darkened intellect and ignorance (source)

What is notable, is that the Catholics do not understand the temptation to sin, or disordered passions, labeled “concupiscence”, as inherently sinful. Passions are disordered — given to sin — as a result of the deprivation of grace. Contrastly, Protestants teach that desires or passions for sin come from the depraved nature, and are thus sinful. Consequently, Catholics do not believe the individual person himself is worthy of wrath — rather, from a deprived (not depraved!) nature, those actions which are sinful merit punishment. Reformed thinkers believe that the human nature is inherently fallen, deserving of wrath.

So then, there is much debate over the state of Adam in original justice, and the state of mankind after his apostasy.

While we can agree on much, this teaching creates some dissonance between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

Adam, Sin, and Romans 5:12

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There has been much debate throughout church history over the meaning of Paul’s Adam-Christ parallel in Romans 5:12-21. What exactly is Paul trying to convey in comparing the two? There are some who propose that Paul is simply making a point through rhetoric, that Adam’s actions and Christ’s are similar, but there is no real link between the two. Others say that Adam is parallel to Christ in a very real and significant way. Just as Christ is head over those under the New Covenant, so Adam was head over those under another covenant; a covenant which affected not only Adam, but all who were under his headship.

The question is, who is correct? I am Reformed, and believe it is clear in Romans 5 that Paul is speaking of Adam as a covenant head over humanity. Reformed theologians look to Romans 5:12 specifically to prove their point. Paul says: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. They would say, death spread to all men, because Adam’s sin was imputed to them, thus making all sinners worthy of death. Adam, as our covenantal representative, impacted us in such a way, that we all died spiritually as a result, being found guilty.

Others deny this interpretation of verse 12. They would point out that death spread to these men, not because of Adam’s sin, but because of their own sins. In other words, they died because they made themselves guilty. 

However, this does not seem to be the flow of the passage. Paul says further in Romans 5:19-20 that “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners”. In other words, Adam’s disobedience made many sinners. This verse again points to Adam as being responsible for all of humanity’s guilt.

Herman Ridderbos agrees. He says of this passage:

The meaning of this much discussed pronouncement [in Romans 5:12], if one takes into consideration the whole context of Romans 5, in our opinion cannot be in doubt. One man has given sin access into the world; he has, as it were, opened the gate of the world to sin. So sin has entered in, here represented as personified power (v. 21); through and with sin, death has come in as the inseparable follower and companion of sin. The words then follow: “an so [i.e. along this way opened by the one man] death has passed unto all men, for the reason that all sinned”. The final words give final explanation as to how death, through one man, has passed and could pass unto all men. This happened because “all sinned”, namely, on account of their connection with the one man; therefore Adam’s sin was the sin of all, and in that sense it can hold for them that they all sinned. This union of all with and in the one is, as we have already seen, the governing idea of this pericope, and it is in that idea that Paul indicates the typical significance of Adam with respect to [Christ].

Many wish to understand the words, “for the reason that all have sinned”, as referring to the later personal sins of all. This is impossible, however, for more than one reason. First of all, even the words “and so death passed to all” point to the entering in of and granting of passage to sin and death into the world through the one man. Were one to understand the concluding words of verse 12 of the personal sins of all, then this passage of death would rest once again on the sins of all, and “and so” would lose its exclusive reference to what precedes. That this is not the meaning of the text appears from the following considerations:

(a) From the argumentation of verses 13 and 14, Paul appeals here to the period before the giving of the law, because the death of men then living cannot be explained from the “own”, person sin, but must have had its cause in the sin of Adam. There was sin then, too: “for until the law [came] there was sin in the world”. The sanction of the law (death) did not as yet apply, however. For where there is no law, there is also no transgression (cf. 4:15), and “sin is not imputed when there is no law”. Nevertheless, at the time also, death reigned over those who did not transgress in the same manner as Adam, that is, who were not confronted in the same manner as Adam with the divine command and the sanction on it. It is thus apparent that it was not their personal sin, but Adam’s sin and their share in it, that was the cause of their death. The final words of verse 12b cannot thus be understood otherwise than in this corporate sense.

(b)  That in the sin of all (v. 12) it is not a matter of personal sins of Adam’s descendants but of one, fixed, first transgression that was the sin of all by virtue of their relation to the first Adam is also unmistakably apparent in the sequel. Paul speaks here repeatedly of the one transgression or the transgression of one, which resulted in the death of all:

…for if by the trespass of the one the many died (v. 15)

…for the judgment led upon the ground of one [trespass] to condemnation (v. 16)

…for if by the trespass of the one death came to reign (v. 17)

…as by the trespass of one it came to condemnation for all men (v. 18)

[It is obvious then the passage speaks of] the sentence (of death) that the one sin of Adam brought on all men, because they are all included in the sin and in the death of the one. In bringing judgment on all by his sin, Adam is also the type of the Coming One, as is evident in all the parallel statement mentioned [in the passage].

Douglas Wilson on Total Depravity

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“There are two basic pictures of man’s state in the Bible. The first is that man is a slave to sin. The second is that man is dead in his transgressions and sins. In both cases, man is utterly helpless, and the helplessness is comprehensive. It affects everything he is, and everything he does…

As Paul states, no one seeks after God. The sinful mind is hostile to God and cannot desire Him. But as Paul also recognized, the unregenerate Jews did have a zeal for God, but without knowledge. This zeal only increased their condemnation. Paul, before his conversion, delighted in the law of God, and had a great zeal for it. But he also hated the people of God… [As Paul himself said, he had a] zeal without knowledge. [What this means, is that] seeking after God on your own terms, with your own understanding, is simply a subtle way of running from Him. An unregenerate man can love the Word of God, but only so long as he misunderstands it. An unregenerate man can understand the Word of God, but only so long as he hates it… If he lifts his arm, the rest of him sinks deeper…

The sinful mind is hostile to God. This does not mean that the non-Christian cannot praise God or pray to Him. It does mean that everything is done in the context of his larger rebellion against God. And the context affects everything. Therefore, when he praises God, even his praise is sin. When he prays, his prayer is an offense. This means that evangelical obedience, obeying the gospel, is impossible for the non-Christian. He cannot repent properly, and he cannot believe properly. He can perform what he believes to be repentance (but which is actually a worldly sorrow unto death), and he can assent to the truths of the Christian religion. But as he does these things, he will always be doing something else that negates or denies it. He will take back with one hand what he gives with the other. He cannot remove himself from the context of his rebellion. He cannot cease rebelling; he cannot surrender. If he runs up the white flag, it is with treachery in his heart.”

Douglas Wilson, Easy Chairs, Hard Words: Conversations on the Liberty of God 

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism – My Thoughts

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So recently, there was a debate between two Calvinists and two Arminians about the subject of predestination and God’s role in salvation.

The Calvinist debaters were Daniel Montgomery, pastor a Sojourn Church in KY, and Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Seminary. They recently published a book together called PROOF, which was a rehashing of the TULIP acronym. I read the book, and would encourage anyone to read it.

The Arminian debaters were Austin Fischer, recent author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. His partner was an odd fellow I had never heard of named Brian Zahnd. I have followed Fischer for quite some time, and have been fascinated by his very quick transition from Calvinism into a liberal type of Arminianism, following the likes of Roger Olson et al.

You can watch the debate here:

I will give a commentary about the debates below the video links

Strengths on each side?

I want to start by commenting on the strengths of each side, then the weaknesses. First, the Calvinist side clearly used much more biblical texts to back up their claims than their opponents. I mean, it was ridiculous how much scripture Daniel Montgomery brought into his arguments. Timothy Paul Jones did entire expositions of texts. This encouraged me, being a Calvinist myself. It was encouraging to see each of them not only mentioning texts, but also explaining and interpreting them for us.

However, the Arminian side had some strengths too; though they had less scripture, the Arminians had better rhetoric and responses. What I mean is that both Fischer and Zahnd were able to respond to and critique the Calvinist side in a very persuasive manner (of course, persuasion doesn’t make you right — but it helps!). Contrastly, the Calvinist side didn’t really respond much. Instead, they mainly posited their positions. And for a debate, you have to be able to critique, pick apart, and see the arguments behind the arguments.

Weaknesses on each side?

As I said above, I thought the Calvinist side should have responded and critiqued the Arminian side much more than they did. There were several times when Fischer would contradict himself, or say something wrong, which the Calvinists never picked up on. For instance, Fischer asserted that none of the early church fathers were Calvinistic. This is a sore overstatement. The theological nuance of the early church fathers is still debated today. However, neither Montgomery nor Jones critiqued Fischer for that. Also, Fischer asserted that the only way Calvinists can believe that God is both good and completely sovereign is to ascribe mystery to the doctrines instead of explaining how they work. However, when Fischer described his doctrine of synergism, he repeatedly said it was a mystery, and never completely explained it! This, to me, was a sore misstep for Fischer. But, the Calvinist side never picked up on that either. I think Montgomery and Jones should have been much more critical of both Zahnd and Fischer.

The biggest weakness I saw on the Arminian side was the lack of scripture used in their arguments. What I mean is that they never really explained any biblical texts in depth. They may have spouted out a few texts here and there, but they never really considered the meaning or the context. For instance, Fischer started the first video by denying pretty harshly that God decreed or predestined anything. But for all the time he argued against predestination, he rarely brought in scripture. Also, when Zahnd began critiquing the idea of predestination, he insisted that the doctrine was inconsistent with “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. To him, Jesus’ teaching, life and death, (all those red letters … getting it?) was a more sure word then the Bible (in fact, he pitted the Bible against Jesus, which Jesus himself never did). Soon into the debate, it became obvious that Zahnd either questioned or denied the infallibility of the scriptures. Of course, I do want to recognize, Fischer did quote some texts here and there, especially during his synergism explanation. But he never really got deep into the texts. It’s easy enough to spout out a few verses that sound like they support your position. It’s altogether different to do an exposition of those verses, which the Calvinist side did a few times.

The bottom line: who won?

Here’s the issue with a debate like this. At the end of the day, the Calvinists (with whom I agree) held to the biblical inerrancy of scripture. And because of this, they argued not only from the red letters, but also in the rest of the Bible. And so they brought in a myriad of texts which supported the idea that predestination was in fact true. They brought in texts from the Old Testament, New Testament, epistles, and so on. They brought the whole gambit. And for that, they had a doctrine that really was supported by all of scripture. In the end, the Bible was their primary source.

However, from the Arminian side, it became more and more apparent that the Bible was a secondary source for them. For them, the true and trustworthy source was “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. Over and over, you would hear, “The God of Calvinism is incongruent with God as revealed in Jesus Christ”. However, and here’s my rub with the Arminians, they never really dug into the texts to support this idea. They never in-depth scriptural support, especially from the Old Testament, that the God as revealed in Jesus Christ was Arminian. Instead, they imported their own understanding of Christ into the Bible. They never considered texts like John 6, 8, 10, 17, and others, in which Jesus himself teaches predestination. They never considered the fact that Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38), which presupposes that Jesus came to accomplish a predestined redemption. The Arminians never brought these texts up. They couldn’t. Instead, they continued to repeat, “the God as revealed in Jesus Christ is incongruent with Calvinism”. To me, that really weakened their arguments. And it’s because their understanding of Jesus came first, and the Bible second.

Brian Zahnd says this much in a very eye-opening post, in which he says outright,

“The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ”.

Do you see what he’s saying? It’s subtle, but here’s what he’s saying: If the Old Testament disagrees with your understanding of Jesus, reject it; it’s not reliable. Because after all, Israel made some bad “assumptions” along the way that we now know are wrong. Zahnd rejects the infallibility of the scriptures, and that affects his theology, including his theology of Christ and salvation. He imports an understanding of Jesus into the scriptures, picks and chooses what he likes from the Bible, and forms a theology from that. This is not healthy exegesis. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s another post by Zahnd where he allows his understanding of Christ to lead to an utter denial of substitutionary atonement.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the Calvinist side won, no problem. If you don’t use the Bible to form your doctrine, your doctrine will always inform the way you read your Bible. What’s at stake in this entire debate is the Bible, not simply Calvinism or Arminianism. And I’ll side with the Bible all day long.

Judicial Abandonment: What we all Deserve

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RC Sproul, in his commentary on Romans, speaks on what he calls “judicial abandonment” from Romans 1:18-32. It is an explanation of just exactly how God justly judges people. 

Sproul says, 

Three times in this section [of Romans 1:18-32] we read about human beings being given up by God. They are given up to their vile passions, the lust of the flesh, and their reprobate mind. When God judges people according to the standard of his righteousness, he is declaring that he will not strive with mankind forever. We hear all the time about God’s infinite mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to sin. 

The worst thing that can happen to sinners is to be allowed to go on sinning without any divine restraints. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation when the description of the last judgment is set forth, God says, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Rev 22:11). God gives people over to what they want. He abandons them to their sinful impulses and removes his restraints, saying in essence, “If you want to sin, go ahead and sin.” This is what theologians call “judicial abandonment”. God, in dispensing judgment, abandons the impenitent sinner forever. 

Here in Romans… since by nature we repress the truth, God delivers us to our sin…

Romans is unapologetic about this concept of judicial abandonment, arguing that it is right and just for God to abandon sinners to the desires and lusts of their sin, thus allowing them to run, not walk, to hell. God’s grace is removed, and the flood gates are opened, so to speak. Without this divine restraint, as Sproul tells it, we as sinners will forever love our sin more than God, and choose hell without exception. And Paul tells us in Romans, it is right for God to do this. It is God’s righteous judgment on wicked. 

Given this context, grace is a special gift of God, above and apart from what we actually deserve. When God saves sinners in Christ, he is bypassing what we actually deserve, and instead gives Christ the abandonment. He gives Christ the wrath. And he turns our hearts to him. This is the context of the gospel. And Paul wants us to make sure that although hell should be and would be something we all go to, God chooses to save some. 

For more on this, you can read more on the nature of hell and condemnation here.

The Paradox of Sin

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In the latter half of Romans 1, Paul presents a very intriguing argument for the universal depravity of man. He states that God has provided the gospel to those who believe (Rom 1:16), because the wrath of God is revealed against all men for their ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). In other words, because we are so sinful and wicked, God has provided a means for salvation. If he had not, his wrath would remain forever upon us.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul draws out the nature of this wickedness that merits God’s wrath. It’s very interesting to see the paradoxical manner in which he describes our sin. 

First, Paul says that our sin is willful and knowing rebellion against God. In Romans 1:20-21, Paul says that though we know that God exists, we willingly and purposefully rebel against him. He also tells us in Romans 1:32 that we know that those who act wickedly deserve God’s wrath. So sin, in this vein, is a meditated choice to rebel against God.

But while Paul does describe sin as willful rebellion, in this very same passage, he also describes our sin as uncontrollable “lusts” brought on by our “hearts of impurity”, “dishonorable passions” and “debased minds” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Paul finishes by saying that if God left us in our sin, our sinful desires would enslave us, ultimately sending us to hell. So in this sense then, though we willfully disobey God (Rom 1:20-21), we are also uncontrollably bound in sin. Our sinful desires so control us that we become “filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom 1:29). 

In this way, sin is both something we choose, and something that controls us. Sin is both high-handed and willful rebellion, and all at the same time, a slave master who causes us to sin. 

Edward Welch comments on this truth, saying,

In sin, we are both hopelessly out of control and shrewdly calculating; victimized yet responsible. All sin is simultaneously pitiable slavery and overt rebelliousness or selfishness. This is a paradox to be sure, but one that is the very essence of all sinful habits. If  you deny the out-of-control nature of [sin], as some Christians have done, then you assume that everyone would have the power to change himself. Change would be easy. You would simply say, “Stop it. You got yourself into it, and you can get yourself out”. There would never be a sense of helplessness or a desperate need for both redemption and power through Jesus. So this cannot be our position. 

At the same time, there will be other problems if you ignore the in-control, purposeful nature of [sin]. [Sinners] will be quick to place blame outside themselves. They are left with no way to understand their guilt. The redemptive work of Christ is replaced by an emphasis on “healing” that is not rooted in the grace of forgiveness.¹ 

For Welch then, sin must be personal and purposeful, and enslaving and controlling. And certainly, it is biblical. We are slaves to our sin (John 8:44). Yet, our sin is not divorced from our will. We choose to disobey. We want to disobey (Joshua 24:15).

More than this, though, God addresses our confusing sin problem with a complex gospel. In Christ, God provides an atonement through which all of our individual, chosen sins can be forgiven. But also, by the work of the Holy Spirit, God washes us through regeneration, replacing our sinful heart with a new heart able and willing to obey God. No longer do we have to obey the taskmaster of sin, but we are empowered to obey God afresh. And no longer do we have a record stained with sin, but a clean one filled up with Christ’s righteousness. 

We have a paradoxical sin problem. But we also have a multi-faceted gospel solution. And we can be made new in Christ.

¹ Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Edward Welch