Installment 5 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
In essence, sin is the falling away of the heart from God, transgressing against God’s will and His holy law (Ps. 51:6; Jer. 3:25; Rom. 7:7,8). According to Luther, “sin is nothing else than what is not according to the Word of God.” (Refutation of Latomus). People are guilty before their Creator and responsible for their sins. If sins are not atoned, punishment will ensue. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
The New Testament believers’ understanding of sin differed greatly from the philosophy of the surrounding Greek culture and religion. In addition the word used for “sin” in Greek, hamartia, and its derivatives appear in the New Testament with a different meaning than in traditional language use.
In the Greek and Hellenistic world, sin and evil were thought to be weakness or ignorance. The concept of guilt was rarely associated with sin. Sin was not considered to be a transgression against the gods’ will, because gods were also thought to perform morally questionable deeds. Worshipping gods and mystery religion rites did not usually include ethical obligations. Practicing virtues and avoiding evil were matters of the mind and had nothing to do with a person’s relationship with the gods.
The Origin of Sin
God created everything good, including humans (Gen. 1:26–27,31). In their original state, humans were sinless. They lived in unity with God and fulfilled the law God had put into their hearts. They were the image of God and partakers of eternal life.
The Augsburg Confession and its Apology state that even though God has created the whole world and maintains all that exists, the origin of sin is nonetheless the will in the devil and in humans that turns away from God.
The Bible’s creation narrative is immediately followed by the narrative of the fall into sin (Gen. 3). It describes where the evil that prevails among humans originates. Evil corrupted the perfection that God created. The creation narrative does not tell how evil came into the world. Elsewhere in the Bible there are allusions to the fall of the angels (e.g. Rev. 12:7–9). The Bible’s narrative of the fall into sin is not a historical document. It is to be understood as God’s revelation that looks backward in time. By faith we understand that the writers of the narrative were guided by God’s Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).
In the fall of Adam and Eve, the first humans lost their original innocence. The devil, God’s adversary, approached them in the form of a serpent and enticed them to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of which God had forbidden them to eat (Gen. 3:1–6). When Eve listened to the serpent, her mind changed and the fruits of the tree began to look desirable. It meant submitting to the will of the enemy of souls. The devil and sin became rulers of the human heart. Then God gave the promise of the One who would crush the head of the serpent, the One whose duty would be to destroy the work of the devil (Gen. 3:15; 1 John 3:8).
The Inheritance of the Fall into Sin is Death and Original Sin
The narrative of the fall into sin in and of itself indicates that all people became mortal as a result of the fall. God drove Adam and Eve out of Paradise so that they would not eat the fruit of the tree of life and live eternally (Gen. 2:22–24). The results of these first people’s fall have been inherited by all their descendants.
Paul described how “As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). All people since Adam have inherited original sin. The psalmist expresses this thus: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).
All Humankind is Subject to Original Sin
The idea that all humankind is sinful was foreign in the Greek world. Meanwhile, in ancient Mesopotamia, where Israel’s progenitor Abraham’s family originated, this was a familiar thought (Gen. 11:24–32). In Sumerian and Akkadian writings there are statements according to which all people are sinners from birth. This same premise also underlies the Old and New Testaments.
Early Christians were of Jewish descent. Their teaching, however, differed from the Jewish way of thinking, by which the inclination to sin came from Adam’s fall, but guilt was not the result of Adam’s sin. On the other hand, there are examples in Jewish literature that are very close to Paul’s thoughts, for example.
The first pages of the Bible relate how as humans began to multiply, their wickedness on earth also increased (Gen. 6–8). God saw that their thoughts and intentions were thoroughly evil. In the end God destroyed humankind because of sin, with the exception of Noah and his family. After that God promised that He would never again destroy humankind, even though people’s thoughts and deeds are evil from youth.
Of the biblical authors, Paul has pondered the question of sin the most. He concluded on the basis of observation (Rom. 1:18–32, 2:17–24) as well as based on biblical testimony that all people are under the power of sin by nature (Rom. 3:9). Paul quoted Psalms 14 and 53, in which God looks down from heaven and sees that there are none who do good, not one. All have fallen away from God and all are unworthy (Rom. 3:10–12).
Paul stated that Scripture has imprisoned everything under the control of sin (Gal. 3:22). When speaking of sin, Paul often used the singular. Thus sin is like a distinctive entity, which is behind all sin. For example Paul states that “Sin hath reigned unto death” (Rom. 5:21), “When ye were the servants of sin” (Rom. 6:20), “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (Rom. 7:17), “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me” (Rom. 7:11). This same thought appears in the first pages of the Bible: “Sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire” (Gen. 4:7).
God has revealed His will to people in His law. The duty of the law is also to show people their sins (Rom. 3:20; 7:7–9). According to Luther, the knowledge of sin comes through the law, which makes justification possible (Lectures on Romans). Jesus also stated that had He not come and spoken, people would not have had sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin (John 15:22).
What then is the responsibility of people who are unaware of God’s law and Jesus’ teachings? Can they also be made accountable for their sins? According to Paul, those who have sinned in ignorance of the law will perish despite the law. He justified holding heathens that do not know the law responsible for their sins with the thought that they may naturally do that which the law requires. Paul says that the demands of the law have been written into their hearts (Rom. 2:14–15). They that know the law and still commit sin shall be judged by the law (Rom. 2:12).
Human Nature Is Entirely Corrupted by Original Sin
The Bible reveals the depth of corruption, caused by original sin, in every person. Sin does not only consist of outwardly visible, individual deeds. The source of sin is much deeper. Paul portrayed human nature that is corrupted by individual sin with the term “flesh” (sarks in Greek). John also referred to the same thing when he spoke about “lust of the flesh” (1 John 2:16). In the Old Testament, “flesh” (bassaar in Hebrew) indicated humans’ sinfulness (Gen. 6:12,13; Deut. 5:26). At other times the term “flesh” appears in the Bible in a neutral sense, in which case it refers to humans as created and mortal beings (e.g. Job 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:16; 2 Cor. 11:18).
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession teaches that after Adam’s fall, all people are conceived and born in sin and are from the mother’s womb full of evil lust and inclination. By nature they have no fear of God nor faith in God. Human nature is completely corrupted by sin from birth (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article II).
Of the biblical authors, Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote most profoundly about humans’ corrupt nature and his own battle in its grip (7:14–25). Paul says he is “carnal, sold under sin.” He explained further, “what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” He concluded: “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Rom. 7:15–18).
Paul’s description of his corrupt nature and his inability to do any good has caused disputes among theologians. Traditionally it has been considered a description of a Christian’s battle with his or her corrupt self, but others feel that Paul could not have described himself as a Christian so dismally. The end of the description (Rom. 7:22–25) clearly indicates, however, that Paul was indeed referring to his struggle as a Christian: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind…O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”
In the first letter to John there is similar tension to that found in Paul’s description. The writer describes on the one hand humans’ complete sinfulness: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). On the other hand the writer also describes complete sinlessness: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (3:9.)
Luther expressed the same by stating that a Christian is simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator). The human is at once completely sinful and completely righteous (Refutation of Latomus).
Actual Sins Are a Result of Original Sin
The origin of actual sins is human nature—with its many lusts—corrupted by original sin. The New Testament contains about fifty different words pertaining to sin and eighteen lists of sins. Jesus taught that humans are defiled by that which comes from their hearts and corrupt nature, not by that which goes into their mouths. Jesus described how evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness and blasphemies come from the heart (Matt. 15:17–20). In another well-known Bible portion, Paul told how “the flesh lusteth against the spirit.” He describes “works of the flesh” as adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like (Gal. 5:17–21). The Bible teaches us that it is also a sin to neglect to do good deeds that arise from faith (Matt. 25:41–46).
The Smalcald Articles state that actual sins are fruits of human nature that is corrupted by original sin (Smalcald Articles, section one). Jesus taught: “For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit” (Luke 6:43,44). The deeds or fruits reveal who is the ruler of the human heart. According to Luther, you can tell by the fruits who is Christian and who is not (Lectures on 1 John).
Humans Can neither Avoid Sin nor Do Anything for Their Salvation
The Jews thought that as a result of the fall into sin, a person inherited the inclination to sin but maintained the ability to choose between good and evil. A person could do good if he or she so desired. According to the Greek concept of human nature, a person was fundamentally good. As such, the biblical understanding of a person’s complete corruption and inability to avoid sin clearly differed from both the Jewish and Greek views on human nature.
There is also a stark difference in the doctrines of the Catholic and Lutheran churches regarding a person’s role in becoming saved. The Catholic church took a stand on these issues in the Council of Trent during the years 1545–1563. The Council of Trent concluded that human nature is not totally sin-corrupt, but rather humans have free will in relation to God. The Council ratified a doctrine of justification that defines God’s decisive role and humans’ contributory role in becoming saved. Lutherans considered such thoughts to be contrary to the teachings of the Bible.
These same questions were discussed in the 1990s when the Catholic church attempted to draft a joint declaration on justification with Lutheran churches. Despite attempts to compromise, the negotiations did not result in anything that satisfied both sides. As Lutherans we believe according to the teachings of the Bible and of Luther, i.e. that salvation is completely God’s work which occurs alone through grace, alone by faith alone for the sake of Christ. The power to decide these matters of salvation exists only in the hands of God (Bondage of the Will).
The Results of Sin
Jews thought that illnesses could be a result of sin: children, for example, could inherit punishment due to the sins of their parents. Jesus rejected this understanding. When the disciples asked Him whether a person was born blind because of his own sins or the sins of his parents, Jesus replied, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:1-3). By healing the blind person, God demonstrated His power to people. The Bible’s statements regarding how the ungodly will prosper and the righteous will suffer refutes the understanding that God would methodically punish sinners here on earth.
The New Testament repeatedly warns that the loss of eternal life, replaced by eternal punishment instead, is the most severe result of sin (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:6-9). No one can atone their sins and avoid eternal punishment by doing good works. Instead, God Himself has prepared atonement and redemption through His Son Jesus Christ because He loved sin-fallen humankind. The atonement covers humankind as broadly as the sin of Adam does: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The almighty God knew before the world was created that humans, which He created in His own image, would fall into sin. That was why He formed a plan and made a decision beforehand regarding justification of humans through His Son: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:4,5). For this reason every person born into this world is subject to original sin and is simultaneously a partaker of faith and the righteousness of Christ.
Sins unto Death
John stated that there are sins unto death and sins not unto death (1 John 5:16,17). In this statement, death can mean either physical or spiritual death. In the Old Testament time, the Law of Moses was both a societal and spiritual law, which included the death penalty. The Law of Moses decrees physical death for many transgressions (Heb. 10:28, cf. Mark 14:61-64). According to Luther the main sin unto death is unbelief. He mentions other examples of sins unto death, including heretical Korah and his followers as well as impenitence (Lectures on 1 John).
In the New Testament, severe transgressions of the Law of Moses were sins that signified spiritual death. The Old Testament background is partially evident: “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15; 5:16). Adultery was also considered a sin unto death in a spiritual sense (1 Cor. 5:1-5). In this way the tradition of sins unto death in the Law of Moses could be applied in the form of spiritual death. Instead of physical death, the punishment of the impenitent one was excommunication from the congregation. A penitent one could, however, receive sins forgiven by proceeding according to the Church Law of Christ (Matt. 18:15–17).
According to the teaching of the Bible, living in permissiveness of sin leads to losing faith and to spiritual death (Rom. 6:16). The letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to lay aside “every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1). Paul encouraged Timothy to keep faith and a good conscience and referred to those who have rejected it and become shipwrecked in faith (1 Tim. 1:19). God nourishes and cares for His children who are sinful with grace and forgiveness, so that they would keep faith and a good conscience and would reach the rest of the righteous.
The Bible’s instruction on sin and on right and wrong is always current. Our societal laws are based on the Law of Ten Commandments. Our communal life is built on the values of God’s Word. The situation is deteriorating, however. In a secular society, people’s values are increasingly shaped by the objectives of sin-corrupt human nature.
We often speak of sin solely from the viewpoint of an individual. Paul says, however, “The whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19). We live in a time when every day our eyes and ears fill with global problems caused largely by humans. These include climate change, poverty, famine, refugees, terrorism, development of ever more efficient weapons of mass destruction and threats of using said weapons. Underlying these problems is the lifestyle of humans affected by original sin. Sin has broken the harmony between nature and humans. In this way the fruits of original sin cause suffering to millions of people every day.
As Christians, we have been called to extend the invitation to God’s kingdom, to call others from sin to grace. It brings security and blessing to the life of a child of God even in the most difficult situations. In preaching God’s Word, it is important to take a clear stand, based on the Bible, on questions of right and wrong and on matters pertaining to people’s relationship with God. The Bible and the Holy Spirit reveal to the congregation and to a conscience cared for by God’s Word what is right and wrong in various life situations.
Even amidst the evil in this world we can with a trusting mind await the fulfillment of God’s promise. Peter writes about this: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13).
- Luther Martin
- Augsburgin Confession.
- Apology of Augsburg Confession.
- Bondage of the Will. Original work “De servo arbitrio” 1525.
- Lectures on 1 John. Original work “Vorlesung über den 1. Johannisbrief ” 1527.
- Lectures on Romans. Original work “Epistola ad Romanos” 1514–.
- Refutation of Latomus. Original work “Rationis Latomianae confutatio” 1521.
- Smalcald Articles.
- Augsburgin Confession.
- Juntunen Viljo
- “Jumalasta syntynyt ei tee syntiä.” Suomen eksegeettisen seuran julkaisuja 68. 1997.
- Raamatun opetus synnistä. – Jumalan huoneen ihanuus. SRK:n vuosikirja 2002.
- “Jumalasta syntynyt ei tee syntiä.” Suomen eksegeettisen seuran julkaisuja 68. 1997.
- Kuula Kari. Hyvä, paha ja synti. Kirjapaja 2004.
- Nurminen Hanna. Jumala vai minä? Kaksi käsitystä vanhurskauttamisesta 1970-luvun vanhoillislestadiolaisuudessa. Unigrafia 2016.
- Reinikainen Erkki. Usko ja teot. SRK 1999.