As we are coming closer to the Christmas season, I thought that it might be interesting to think about…well, sin. This might seem contrary to the Christmas story and should rather be talked about sometime before Easter, right?
On the one hand yes, but on the other it is always good to understand the good news in light of the bad. Or, said differently, the good news might not be understood at all without the issue of sin.
Once I remember to be in discussion about what is the more “crucial” event for the Christian – crucifixion or resurrection. I think my Orthodox friends would answer – dah…the incarnation! My purpose here is not to defend or even propose one event over the other, but to see what theologians mean when they talk about “original sin”, “acts of sin”, “temptation”, and their relationship to each other.
A. What is the difference between original sin and individual acts of sin?
When we talk about original sin we normally talk about the condition under which every human being is born. What we are not talking about is the original act of sin committed by Adam, though original sin is related to such. Thus, original sin refers to the condition under which every human being is conceived, because of some kind of participation in the sin Adam committed in the garden (here some enter into the discussion of the Pelagian, semi-Pelagian view of such…but this we will skip…).
Individual acts of sin on the other hand do not refer to our condition but to our actions (physical as well as mental). Again there is some relationship to original sin, but individual acts of sin are understood separately. Our individual acts of sin do stem from our condition – i.e., original sin. Thus we can say, that we are predisposed to sin; or differently, sinning comes natural to us.
But what is sin? This is actually a quite complicated, yet very simple question. One dictionary defines it the following way: sin is “[t]he fundamental unbelief, distrust and rejection of God and human displacement of God as the center of reality” (Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, 107). Carson in his The God Who Is There defines it as our de-goding of God or our setting ourselves over God. Sin is not only an action in the physical sense (as alluded to above) but already takes place in the thought-world (see e.g. Jesus remarks on murder and adultery in the so called Sermon on the Mount; Matt 5:21-30).
So now we have some ides about original sin, acts of sin, but how does this relate to temptation; or how does temptation relate to that?
B. How does temptation relate to original sin and acts of sin?
Temptation plays an essential part in both Adam’s sin in which we partook as well as the individual acts of sin which we commit. The relationship to original sin is of a different kind, since we are not talking about certain acts but the condition of humanity. Nevertheless there is a relationship and we will talk about such after our discussion on the relationship of temptation to acts of sin.
Here a passage in James will help us to clarify the issue at hand. In James 1:13-15 we read:
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
In this passage we see that first of all it is not God who is tempting us. God might and does permit temptations (cf. also 1 Cor 10:13; see the discussion in the upcoming post) and trials but He never tempts us.
Secondly, we observe that it is our own desires which lead us into temptation and ultimately sin. The two participles exelkomenos, “lured”, and deleazomenos, “enticed”, tell us how and when such is taking place. The temptation which springs from our own desires comes as we are “lured and enticed”. That is, we were not even thinking about being tempted or sinning, but something catches our attention and all in a sudden we feel an urge to pursue that thought, speech, or action. It needs to be stressed however, that neither temptation nor desire in itself is sin (Jesus himself has been tempted, yet did not sin!).
At one point in the process, that is when we are giving into the temptation, an actual act of sin is committed. This is expressed by James: “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Thus we see that the actual act of sin comes via a process. That is not to say, however, that this takes minutes, or even hours, but there is some kind of process even if it appears to us happening all at one moment (and we all have been in those situations).
After having talked about temptation’s relation to acts of sin, we can talk about temptation’s relation to original sin (we need to keep in mind that we are not talking about the original act of sin Adam committed). Original sin, as argued above, puts us human beings already in a precarious condition. Since we inherited not only the guilt of Adam (something Semi-Pelagians deny) but also the pollution and corruption (i.e., a sin nature; something Pelagians deny along with the guilt of Adam), we are born with original sin. We have the condition of being utterly depraved (often referred to as total depravity); i.e., all of our faculties (mind, heart, soul, spirit etc.) are polluted by the sin nature. This does not mean that we are as evil as we can be all the time, but that we are utterly affected by original sin.
Now, coming back to the relationship of temptation’s relationship to original sin, we can see that we are already predisposed to sin. Sadly, sin comes as being natural to us. Thus, even though temptation was in the Garden of Eden already, we face temptation (after Gen 3) with a nature which is inclined to disobey and rebel against God.
Next week we will take a look into the following question: Is falling to temptation inevitable for the believer; for the non-believer? Another issue to be tackled as well will be what to do about the sin issue.
In this Christmas season, let us remember the God-Man who came in humiliation to bring victory over sin and death. And in the words of Hebrews 12:1 “we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely” (see discussion on this verse in The Christian Race: http://afoolsthought.blogspot.com/2011/10/christian-race-hebrews-121-3.htmland the forthcoming blog post about How to Deal With the Sin Issue).
Let us rejoice at the coming of our King. Let us be joyful in remembering him coming as the Suffering Servant and let us call with the early church: “Our Lord, come!”