Hamartiology: The Doctrine of Sin – Part 4
by Jonathan Hamilton
I won’t spend much time, if any, revisiting the previous articles as I post new ones in this series. Let’s dive right in to new material:
THE PROBLEM OF THE SIN NATURE
Does a believer still have a sin nature?
For those of you in counseling contexts, Jay Adams and some of his followers do not believe in a sin nature for believers, only a regenerated nature. Essentially, ongoing sin in the life of a believer is the collection of habits left over from pre-conversion. So ongoing sin is a matter of habit. These habits reside mainly in the body. This would be the nouthetic counseling folks, not the CCEF folks. I side with the CCEF approach on this one. I get concerned with how much Adams links sin to the body. Is sin an enduring habit, or is it something that remains in us? This is partly a quibble over terms and definitions. It seems to me that believers still have something inside of us that wants to sin.
The NT does not use the word “nature” in combination with sin, nevertheless it does clearly intimate that there is some aspect of our being that is still sinful even though regenerate (1 John 1:8-10). Verses 8 and 10 are not redundant. Normally, verse 8 is taken regarding disposition to sin (indwelling sin) and verse 10 is talking about ongoing acts of sin. See also Romans 6, in which the idea of “dead to sin” doesn’t mean that sin has died. The “old man” is not the same thing as the sin nature, it is the connectedness to Adam. That connectedness is crucified. This is a text Jay Adams would use to show the connection between sin and body, but I don’t think that is what Paul is saying. It’s not that the body is sinful, but that we express sinful acts through our body. Notice how Paul personifies sin here: not died to sinning, but died to sin.
Look at it this way: before you are saved, you don’t have a choice of if you are going to sin. You simply choose between sins. Which will I commit? Sin is your master. After salvation, you have a legitimate choice of whether or not to sin. Sin is no longer your master. There is still some kind of sin principle going on. It has not died. You have died to it, its power over you has been broken. See Romans 7 also. There is some kind of abiding sin, some kind of principle, that leads Paul to want to sin even when his “better nature” doesn’t want him to sin. That sin principle is what sometimes gets designated as “the flesh.” Classic text on the flesh: Galatians 5 (esp. vv. 16-18; capitalize “Spirit”).
So is it all reducible to a black dog fighting a white dog and asking which one will win this time? Maybe. But if so, it’s a white wolfhound against a black Chihuahua. I’m not going to go to the mat for the term “sin nature.” But yes, something is still there and we still fight it (Jay Adams isn’t going to say there’s nothing there, he’s just not going to want to call it a nature. He doesn’t want to say there’s some substance there that inhabits part of us. Well I don’t think it’s a substance either. I think it’s a disposition. But I think we still have it.).
Is a believer still totally depraved?
Clearly an unbeliever is totally depraved, but the answer to this question depends on definitions. If totally depraved means that every aspect (mind, heart, will) is affected by sin, then yes, we are totally depraved. If it means every aspect of us is totally depraved, that argument becomes harder to sustain. I like Tozer on this: “God is impossible to satisfy, but He’s easy to please.”
How does sin progress in our lives?
Desire (or attraction, by which I mean whatever Jesus felt when He thought about bread in the wilderness)
“And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise.”
“If you are the son of God, tell this stone to turn to bread.”
Temptation begins with desire. Desire, used simply, the way we are using it here, is not sin. If desire is itself sin, than apparently Jesus sinned. The temptation is not just the desire, the temptation is the inducement to fulfill the desire in some way that God forbids. The Devil can’t create new desires. Our desires are created by God. What the Devil can do is tempt us to misplace those desires, to feel them at the wrong time or in the wrong way or on the wrong object.
How do you get rid of a desire? Tell it to go away? That doesn’t work. You have to replace it with something else to turn aside from it. If you don’t, you begin to entertain the desire. If you want to stop thinking about all the things you can eat, you start to think about something else. The more you ponder those illegitimate ways of gaining food (for example) the more likely it is you will gratify that desire. This leads to consenting to the desire. Somewhere between entertaining and consenting is where the sin occurs. No overt outward act has been committed yet, but you invariably commit the sin in your heart before you ever openly act. Acting is that next step. And it is a very small step between entertaining/consent and acting. Now, I don’t mean no sin ever occurs between desire and entertaining. You certainly can sin there. You can have sin at each of the lines between these steps even before any act has occurred.
Sin has multiple effects:
- Guilt (which requires) Justice ( which requires) Retribution
- Harm / damage (which requires) Reparation
- Weakness (which requires) Reformation
- Pollution / “dirt” (which requires) Restoration
1. The Gospel is the answer to all of these, which is one reason we need to be reminding ourselves of the Gospel daily. Live in the Gospel.
2. Confession is a discipline that not only strengthens us in the fight against sin, it also cleans us from the pollution that comes with our sin.
If unaddressed, at some point, sins become habits and to live without them seems like committing suicide.
At this point we have covered the in-class discussion of Hamartiology. In our next post we will begin the portion of this series on Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), which is related to Hamartiology for obvious reasons.