Category Archives: Sin

Depravity and Moral Decisions

decision-making.jpgIt’s been forever since I’ve posted something, so I thought I’d share an email response I recently wrote.

The question was about the compatibility between the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and man’s ability to make moral decisions. As the question came to me, it was stated as follows:

[Granted the doctrine of total depravity, in which man is utterly incapable of positively responding to God] , why is he able to make moral decisions in almost every or any other area in life without God’s intervention?

Why without any part of the divine initiative and monergistic regeneration, man can and for the most part make as many moral decisions needed to live a decent life in the best sense of the word? Is it that only in the case where Jesus Christ and his way of life are concerned that is man helpless, powerless, and clueless to the point that only a direct interference by the Holy Spirit can awakened him to the truth…?

And so, here’s my response….

Thank you for your question. I believe it’s helpful in that is drives us to making some important theological distinctions that clarify that is meant by the Reformed doctrine of total depravity or total inability.

The Reformed position does not deny that fallen and unregenerate people do in fact make everyday moral decisions. But first a word of clarification. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “moral decisions.” In one sense, we always make moral decisions.” Bad moral decisions are still decisions, and thus, even choosing to rebel against God and embracing sin is a moral decision. So, in this first sense, the Reformed position doesn’t deny that obvious point.

But you probably mean “moral decisions” in the sense of “morally good decision.” If this is the way in which you mean “moral decisions” I think it’s important to affirm that the unbeliever’s problem is personal and spiritual. To address this from the second point to the first, it is spiritual in the sense that it is most fundamentally about spiritual things. What this means is further clarified by the first point, the unbeliever’s hostility to God is personal. It is an enmity against God specifically. As Romans 1 teaches, unbelievers “suppress” what they know of God (v. 18). Likewise, in 1:18 Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Therefore the problem in choosing for the unbelievers is not in general, but instead it is specifically a rejection of the God who created and rules over them. Calvin himself acknowledged that unbelievers made positive contributions to society, love their familiars, communities etc. This is called “civil righteousness.” Reformed theologians have usually defined this under the term common grace, which is the Holy Spirit’s restraining power in the hearts of unbelievers so they are not as bad as they would be if they were consistent with their sinful rebellion against God.

So the great Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine) provides us with two definitions of common grace. First, he defines it as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit.”

And so the closer the issue drives an unbeliever to consider God, the more his rebellion will show itself. The further the issue appears to “bring God in the picture” the less that hostility will be made evident.

I hope this helps!

Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?

John Frame answers:

Are some sins worse than others? Any sin deserves eternal condemnation. In that sense, all sins are equal before God (Gen. 2:17, Deut. 27:26, Ezek. 18:4, 33:8, Rom. 5:16, 6:23, Gal. 3:10, Jas. 2:10-11). But some sins have more harmful consequences than others in this life, and some even offend God more deeply than others. So Scripture distinguishes greater and lesser sins (Ezek. 8:6, 13, 15, Matt. 5:19, 23:23, John 19:11), unwitting and high-handed sins (Lev. 4:2, 13, 22, 5:17, Num. 15:27-30), weightier and less weighty sins. Some sins and errors deserve excommunication, as the incestuous man in Corinth (1 Cor. 6); others do not, as the vegetarians in Rome (Rom. 14). James (3:1, cf. Luke 12:48) says that teachers will be judged with greater strictness. The sins of teachers are often worse than the sins of others, because teachers can lead others astray by their errors and their poor example. Remember that as you plan to minister in the church. To whom much is given, much is required.

One sin is so bad that it is called “unpardonable” (Matt. 12:31-32; cf. Heb. 6:4-6, 10:26-27, 1 John 5:16-17). It is difficult to understand precisely what this means, but I think the best definition of the unpardonable sin is Wayne Grudem’s: “a malicious, willful rejection and slander against the Holy Spirit’s work attesting to Christ, and attributing that work to Satan.” This does not refer to a one-time thoughtless remark, but a general pattern of opposition to the Spirit’s work. At some point, the enemies of Christ reach a point in their unbelief where they are so hardened they can no longer repent. I cannot define precisely what that point is in any specific case. I will say though that if your conscience is troubled by the thought that you might have committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t. People who have committed that sin have hardened consciences, and they are no longer troubled by such concerns.

-John Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord

The DoubleTap of the Fall

I was recently asked about the difference, or distinction, between the Christian doctrine of inherited guilt and inherited sin. After asking a few clarifying questions I thought I knew what was being asked. Here is my (touched up) response:

Inherited guilt (also known as the doctrine of original sin) refers to the teaching that Adam was our “federal head” (i.e our covenant representative). When God placed Adam in Eden to represent us, what he did, we did (we would do no better). If he heeded, obeyed, and cherished the word of God, his victory would be our victory. But if he disobeyed and rebelled from the word of the Lord, his punishment would be ours too. Sadly, we know how Genesis tells the story. Adam’s fall is our fall. The legal guilt and judicial condemnation (if I may use that language) of his sin is reckoned to those he represented.

You find this same principle of “federal headship” in the case of Achan (Josh. 7) and David (1 Chron. 21)- both negative examples- and Christ, a positive example (Rom. 5). The apostle Paul referred to this in Rom. 5:19:

For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Adam’s “disobedience” led to the status of “sinner” for those united to him. In contrast, the Messiah’s “obedience” led to the status of “righteous” for those united to him by faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith‘s 6th chapter (“Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and the Punishment thereof”) speaks of this in paragraph III:

III. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

Inherited sin isn’t about the legal/covenantal relationship with Adam but instead speaks to our moral inclinations and deepest heart gravitation since Adam’s fall. When Adam rejected the lordship of Yahweh in Eden he was then “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2, Col. 2), cut off from the tree of life and relationally from the source of all blessing (God himself). Since he was spiritually dead he had no spiritual life to pass on to his progeny. As a result, all people are usurpers, rebels, hostile to God ( Rom. 8:7-8) and his lordship in thought, word, deed, etc. Again the WCF addresses this in paragraph 2 and 3:

II. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

III. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

Yes, so we’ve been effectively “double-tapped” by the Fall.

The Effects of Sin

I wonder how often we, as Christians, consider the effects of sin.  I know that we focus quite a bit on sin – just watch the news to see the number of “God Hates Fags” demonstrations; think about your reaction when you see two men walking down the street holding hands; think about…you fill in the blanks.

But how often do we meditate on the effects of sin; effects that we live with every day?  This question has weighed heavily on my heart lately.  The other night I was walking home from my son’s, Lucas, Little League baseball game.  We had to park a long walk from the field because there were several games going on when we arrived.  As Lucas and I were walking to the car, I noticed a man talking to his son, and then the son walked off with his mom.  The man just stood there and watched the two of them walk away.  I said, “Hello” as I walked by and he responded with tears in his eyes and a break in his voice.  We exchanged other pleasantries, and Lucas and I continued our walk to the car.  As I drove off, he was still standing by the car watching an empty parking lot.

Now I don’t know the whole story, but I was moved by this man standing and weeping as he said goodbye to his son.  As I was preparing my sermon for the upcoming Sunday, the contrasting picture of me driving home with my son and the man watching his son drive away kept intruding on my thoughts.  I tried to study the picture away, but it stuck there; I was a basket case over this scene in a parking lot.  So I stopped my preparations and asked God what he wanted me to do with this.  I was tempted to give the always-correct, Sunday School answer – Jesus.  But, as true as that answer is, using it as a cop-out didn’t answer the question in my heart.

Then it hit me:  we yell, scream, pray against, etc, the sins of this world; but most of the time we do not grieve the effects of that sin.  As you consider the picture that I have briefly painted, does it break your heart to think on that?  Or have we become so desensitized to broken homes, people dying of AIDS, mothers who made a choice, and all the blatant, heinous sin around us that we no longer consider the heartbreak inherent in those situations?

Now, before I get off my soap box, I must confess that I, too, feel the anger and revulsion at sin.  But this picture that I have stuck in my head from the other night has helped bring to my mind the idea that I should grieve the affects of sin as much as I should speak out against that sin.  And maybe that grief will help me to temper my ‘calling sin, sin’ with the love that God showed in sending His son to die so that he could defeat sin in this world.

Jesus, as savior, truly does answer this situation.  It is his loving act on the cross that not only reconciles us to God, but also has the power to reconcile father & son, husband & wife, mother & daughter, any broken relationship there is.  I will have an opportunity to get to know this man better – his son is on Lucas’ team.  I pray that God breaks my heart for this man and his son so much that I can’t help but share God’s love with them.

The Walking Dead: Holistic Depravity

A couple of weeks ago in class, I was teaching on the doctrine of sin. More specifically, I taught on the doctrine of holistic depravity. Man is created in the image of God, and this means we were designed to reflect God’s righteousness, representation, and rule over the earth.

In the Fall (Gen. 3), sin “infected”  the image of God. So it’s not merely a “part” of us that’s corrupted. Sin has affected every aspect of our being. Our desires, intellect, emotions, and will are all twisted and turned against God. Thus, we are totally, or, more clearly, holistically corrupted by sin.  That’s the reader’s digest version of it.

There one illustration of  holistic depravity that stands out. It stands out because it’s so startling and so vivid. In both Ephesians 2:1, and in Col. 2, Paul categorizes these effects of sin as being “dead in sin.” He says sin has taken away our vitality, our spiritual life. But he is also careful to correct the possible misunderstanding that being “dead in sin” means that we are spiritual passive. That may be true in regard to regeneration (we don’t assist or help God is His sovereign work of making us born again), but not in regard to our ethical hostility toward God. Hear his words afresh:

Eph. 2:1-3: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Paul defines spiritual death as following after the ways of Satan! That’s hardly passive! In Rom. 8:7 he states that man or woman without the Spirit (i.e. the spiritually dead) are hostile to God.

So, think about this for a minute. Dead, yet hostile. Have you ever seen the film 28 Days Later (or it’s sequel, 28 Weeks Later)? If you have, you know where I’m going with this. In the film, the “infected” (modern-day zombies) are dead, they die when infected by the “rage” virus. But these zombies are not the average, run-of-the-mill slow walking, arms-outstretched  zombies. No, they scream, they’re angry, they chase you! They are not passive, they are hostile.

Let us thank God for His mercy. We’re all infected with the spiritual “rage” virus. We were hostile to God and His law, and to anything and everything that got in the way our goal of being our own God. Of course, this manifests itself differently depending on the temperament, personalities, and upbringing of the individual. But the point is true nonetheless.

But, in the words of the Apostle:

God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:5-7)

Taking a Look at the Fall (Part 3)

In summary, we have examined the role that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 play in properly understanding the Fall. Humanity is the apex of God’s creation and assigned the role of vice-regent over creation. Likewise, we have seen that it was God’s sovereign design to establish a hierarchy of responsibility amongst male and female, with Adam as the chief steward responsible for maintaining God’s garden sanctuary. Only as the sexes properly function according to the wise plan of their Creator can both male and female exercise dominion over creation. With these pieces in place, the Fall narrative is shown to be a reversal of the established lines of authority and a repudiation of humanity’s vice-regency.

In Genesis chapter 3 we are shown how this sinful inversion ushered in all that is now wrong with the world. In the Fall, the relationship of man with his Creator was changed. He now became a “child of wrath” and an “enemy of God” (cf. Eph. 2). Furthermore, man’s estrangement from God results in an all-encompassing alienation both with one another and with the self. If man is now at war with God because of the radical selfishness and desire for autonomy that defines his fallen nature, he cannot be at peace, for every created thing points to and reflects its Divine Maker. This is the human condition.

David R. Torres

Taking a Look at the Fall (Part 2)

Now we’ll take a closer look at the structure of the passages we’ll examine:

Outline of Genesis 1-3

Gen. 1: 1-26- God creates out of the void
Gen. 1:26- man as image and likeness =Kingship!

Gen. 2:4-15: God creates man and places him in the garden
2:16-God’s prohibition
2:18: Eve created as helper to Adam, Adam has primacy by creation order
2:19: Adam exercises dominion over animals by naming them
2:23-25: Unity among the sexes

Gen. 3:1: Introduction of the serpent
3:2-10: The temptation
3:11-24: Punishments for all those involved (hope for restoration is alluded to)

Literary Analysis
Scholars are divided on what genre the creation account in Genesis belongs to. Is it a literal narrative or is it allegory? Is it historical or merely symbolic? Some take it as myth; others say it is true myth (C. S. Lewis). It can potentially inhibit our comprehension of the text if we attempt to force it into the Procrustean bed of just one discrete genre.

Genesis 3 has features of several literary genres, the most obvious being historical narrative and poetry. The notion that it is historical narrative is based upon the witness to the historicity of Adam from the Gospel of Luke (Lk. 3:38), and the Apostle Paul (Romans 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45; 1Tim. 2:13-14). According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus is shown to have quoted Genesis 2:24 (cf. Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:8). In these passages Jesus appeals to the original created design for marriage, an institution grounded in real space-time history. In doing this, Jesus merely shares the common first century Jewish belief that the creation account, including the existence of our first parents, was a factual and historical reality and not an allegorical tale.

Linguistic Analysis
In 1:26, the Hebrew words tseleh (image), and dmuth (likeness) are used to convey that man was made in God’s image and likeness. Tseleh is used 17 times in the Old Testament; 5 times in Genesis (1:26, twice in 27; 5:3; 9:6). Outside of Genesis tseleh is usually used to denote a physical representation, e.g., idols (Num 33:52), models of tumors (1 Sam 6:5), or pictures of men (Ezek 16:17). The origin of this word is uncertain. This means that its meaning may have been indistinct. There is no such ambiguity of meaning with dmuth. It is a noun that is clearly related to the verb meaning “to be like, resemble”. There are various theories of whether these words have discrete meanings, or are interchangeable. In the absence of contextual evidence of distinct meanings, and in light of the apparently functionally equivalent way these terms are used in Gen. 5:3, “likeness” seems to contextually nuance “image”.

Genesis does not explicitly state that the serpent is being used or embodied by the devil. Christians who believe in the unity of scripture (i.e. both Testaments form one theological and literary whole) do not have a problem with this. In the Septuagint the Hebrew word that is translated serpent is rendered by the Greek word ophis. In the New Testament book of Revelation, ophis is used to identify the serpent as Satan (cf. Rev. 12:9, 20:2). It is widely accepted in Christian theology that the devil either took the form of a serpent or embodied an actual specimen to mislead Eve.

Theological Interpretation
The snake is described as cunning, or shrewd in the KJV. This Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament to denote both vice and virtue. In this context, it is clearly referring to the serpent’s ability in using clever reasoning with intent to deceive. In Hebrew narrative, it is not common to state the character traits of a participant in the story. When it is done, it is to solicit careful attention on the part of the reader (or listener). The narrator may be warning us as to whether the serpent is speaking the truth, and thus directing us not to accept the words of the serpent as uncritically as Eve.

The serpent deceptively leads Eve toward rejection of God’s Word as the final authority. Instead of complete trust in her Creator’s pronouncement, she is coaxed into weighing the serpent’s pronouncements against what God has said. The serpent’s lack of a covenantal relationship with God is displayed by his practice of using God (Elohim) as the designation for the Creator in lieu of addressing him as the Lord God (Yahweh). The switch of words is crucial, in describing God simply as God instead of as the Lord God, which is characteristic of the rest of Gen 2-3, there is a suggestion of the serpent’s distance from God. God is just the remote creator. Not Yahweh, Israel’s covenant partner. (Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis. Volume 1, p. 73) By deciding whose directions she should follow, Eve posits herself as the ultimate arbiter of what is right and good. This is at first shown by her appropriation of the serpent’s practice of using God instead of the Lord God (Yahweh). She had decided that God was no longer her Lord.

This repudiation of God’s divine right over the whole creation is demonstrated by how she responds to the serpent’s deceptive inquiry in 3:1, “Yea, hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” Eve includes an added ban on touching the tree not mentioned in the original prohibition in 2:17. This modification may insinuate that God is oppressive. His Lordship is rejected, and now his generosity is questioned. This narrative clearly illustrates the self-centeredness that characterizes sin.

There is a certain ambiguity found in the 3:6. It is not transparently clear whether Adam was present during the dialogue between the serpent and Eve. It is commonly assumed that Adam was not present during the interchange between the snake and the woman. No less an exegete than John Calvin held this view. Other scholars hold that Adam was indeed with Eve during the whole dialogue.

If Adam was there, then he failed in his kingly duty to have dominion over the serpent and leadership in his relationship with Eve. This culminates in his refusal to reject the offer based on God’s authoritative prohibition. If he was not there, this shows that the serpent, being crafty, did not go about his task through the ordained lines of authority. Instead of addressing the man, he deceived the woman, turning the divinely-mandated authority structure on its head.

In either case, the serpent displays utter disdain for God’s hierarchical design. By directing his words to Eve, as opposed to Adam, it certainly seems as if serpent was working towards a precise reversal of the created order. The creation was good, thus the rejection of God’s order is tantamount to a repudiation of his Lordship. The serpent calculatingly led God’s royal image bearers in their rebellion by directing them to replace faith in God’s Word with faith in creaturely autonomy. In the heart of man, the summum bonum (i.e. highest good) was exchanged. Man now lived for his glory alone. Later in verses 14-19, we are shown God’s punishment for their transgression, as well as a promise of hope to come.

The theological implications of this passage are vast. Man, by his sinful self-interest ushered corruption into the created order. Christian theology cannot be understood apart from the Fall. Suffering and evil originate here. Intuitively man knows that all is not well with the world. Genesis 3 affirms this universal notion, and explains its origin. The divinely decreed hierarchical structure had been inverted, and the effects linger.

In answering for their transgression, Adam directly blames Eve and indirectly implicates God; Eve likewise blames the serpent for her disobedience (Gen. 3:12-13). The Lord first punishes the serpent. God does not question it as he does Adam and Eve. The serpent is demoted to the position of a writhing creature that is from thereafter conceived of as a symbol of deception. The second part of the serpent’s penalty is quite interesting.

Gen 3:15: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

The first punishment clearly refers to the animal; the second is believed to include the actual source of the manipulation, Satan. Most conservative scholarship has understood this as an allusion to the eventual defeat of Satan accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After pronouncing the serpent’s punishment, God, then states the penalties meted out for man’s transgression.

In starting with Eve, God is following the anti-creational inversion in the Fall. In Gen. 1:28, God blesses man with the decree to be fruitful and multiply. In the curse, women will only be able to conceive in pain. Interestingly, the next aspect of the curse regards the women vis-a-vis the man. Just as in the second punishment of the serpent related to the woman, the second part of her penalty is in direct relation to man. The curse seems to have had a dysfunctional effect on the woman’s desire for her husband as well as on her subordination to him. Some commentators locate in this verse the origin of the oppressive treatment of women that has characterized most patriarchal societies.

Adam’s punishment is covered in three verses, 3:17-19. Each verse unfolds the curses that await Adam. First, in v. 17 God explains why Adam is now cursed. Rather than heed the word of God concerning judgment, he listened to the word of his wife (turning the lines of creaturely authority on their head). Second (v. 18), the creation over which Adam has been given dominion over is still his responsibility, but now it will reject his rule. Third, both life and work will be marked by pain and difficulty, followed ultimately by death. In effect, the curse of v. 19 is “life will be hard, and then you die.” Man was to rule over the world as vice regent, but just as he rejected God’s authority, the earth now yields to him only through much work and hardship. Death and corruption then entered the whole of creation resulting from man’s rebellion.

Next we’ll summarize and conclude…

–David R. Torres

Taking a Look at the Fall (Part 1)

By David R. Torres

This series sets out to examine the narrative of the Fall of mankind into sin in Genesis 3. This text is chosen because it is essential in understanding not only the rest of Genesis, but the entire Old Testament as well. To bring out the fuller meaning of the narrative several questions will be addressed. These questions are first, what is the order that God had established for his creation? Second, what does this order inform us about the Fall and it’s implications? And last, what is the effect of this on our theology?

By close examination, we’ll see that more is going on than merely Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s injunction regarding the forbidden fruit. We’ll shed light on the Fall narrative found in Gen. 3 against the backdrop of chapters 1 and 2. When viewed in its proper context, Gen. 3 depicts the Fall as a reversal of the created order and a rejection of humanity’s vice regency.

In the first two chapters of Genesis, humanity is created in the imago Dei, the image of God. But, we must carefully note that the term “in” is ambiguous. It can lead to the assumption that the image is something that is found in man. In fact, the Hebrew phrase tselem (“in the image”) could be translated “created as the image [of God].” Adam is created as a finite reflection of his Maker. As God is the creator and rules over all things, so man is created as His image and given dominion over the entire earth. Both Gen. 1:26 and 2:19 illustrate the divinely mandated pre-eminence of man over creation. Regarding the image of God as reflected in Man’s ascendancy over the rest of creation, Charles Lee Feinberg states:

Many have seen the meaning of the image in man’s dominion over nature with the corollary concepts of endowment with reason and upright stature. They point out that Genesis 1:26 unmistakably affirms man’s dominion in the immediate context where image is found. Thus it is reasoned, the image consists in man’s lordship over lower creation about him, which is meant by God to be subject to man. It is more correct to declare that the image is the basis or foundation for the dominion. (“The Image of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 129. 1972. Pg 239)

The call to rule the over the world in subjection to God’s authority is what I have referred to as humanity’s vice regency. We see that both man and women shared this duty:

Gen 2:18: And the LORD God said It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.

Gen 2:24: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

In Gen. 1:26-27, God decrees both the creation and function of man before he brings him into being. Similarly, the creation of women is preceded by a decree that includes the reason and purpose of her creation. The creation of women as a helper for man contextually seems to indicate a functional subordination in her relationship with man. There is an order or hierarchy of responsibility established in the first two chapters. God is Lord over all that he has created; the male has a primacy of responsibility over the female, the women having been created after and from the male; human beings (both male and female) have authority over all other living things that inhabit the earth.

As we’ll soon see, the first six verses in the third chapter of Genesis depict the fall of man as the inversion of this order…