Sin or Not Sin?

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Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
I’ve served on our Presbytery’s examination committee for several years. We’ve worked on our questions to not only test candidates’ theological knowledge but to see how they apply them in a pastoral context.

One of the questions on the exam has been difficult for most candidates. In several years of asking, I haven’t encountered any who answer it in the depth that the question is intended to provoke. The question is this:

Does baptism save?

Most candidates answer reflexively. Reacting to Roman Catholic or even Campbellite strains of Christianity, they know that baptism, simply by its administration, doesn’t save an individual. But the question digs deeper into whether a person understands the full meaning of the word “save.”

Salvation includes justification, but salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It encompasses the entire chain of God’s saving actions from His foreknowledge to election to calling to regeneration to faith to justification to sanctification to glorification. Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism saves us and when we understand the whole “realm” of salvation we can understand that without resorting to un-Biblical ideas of baptismal regeneration or a “working of the works”. The solution is found in having a Biblically wider view of the word “save” than most Christians are accustomed to.

A similar problem occurs with the word sin. Many Christians (including elders) seem to operate with a monochromatic definition of the word sin. If the word is utilized then it has to be understood solely in terms of the idea of transgression or violation. Some have asserted that it is unwise or unhelpful or condemnatory to speak of desire or temptation in the category of sin because it will discourage or condemn believers who are struggling. Others see inconsistencies where temptation or desire can be thought of as sin in one context while not being sin in another context.

To address this confusion, let’s look first at the Greek word in the New Testament, where we get the English word sin. The word is hamartia (ἁμαρτία). The question is this: Does this word have a single meaning in the NT? Is it always best translated as transgression or in some way to convey a violation of God’s Law. The answer is No.

If one consults a Greek Lexicon (A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., also known a BDAG), then the semantic range of the word is broader. Here’s how it is used throughout the Scriptures:

  1. A departure from. either human or divine standards of uprightness. This is the most common form in the Scriptures and includes all kinds of transgressions to include special sins. An example would be 1 John 1:15-16: “1 John 5:16–17 (ESV): “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” This is how we commonly conceive of the idea of sin, but there are further uses in the Scriptures.
  2. A state of being sinful, sinfulness, a prominent feature in Johannine thought, and opposed to truth. Examples include John 9:41; 15:24; 19:11 and 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
  3. A destructive evil power, sin. Paul repeatedly refers to sin as a kind of personal power that invades and rules the world. Examples include Rom 5:12, Gal 3:24, and Rom 7:17,20: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me... Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Thus, we see at a basic exegetical level we cannot simply conceive of sin in a single manner but it has a semantic range. In fact, the broadness of the term conveys the Biblical and Theological concept that the evil power of sin and our sinfulness is that which leads to our actual transgressions.

The Westminster Larger Catechism picks up on the range of the concept of sin in Question 25:

25. Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam's first sin,[93] the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually;[94] which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.[95]

Notice how the catechism captures the full-orbed nature of sin. Mankind begins in the garden in an estate of uprightness and blessedness, and then he falls into an estate of sin and misery. This reflects the theology of the Scriptures that everywhere teach that man is not a free creature in a good world but an enslaved creature in an estate of sin and misery. He is volitional but a slave to the estate in which he “lives.” The sinfulness of man’s estate not only includes man’s corrupt disposition that makes him wholly inclined toward evil but also is the source of transgressions.

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