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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.

To be more precise and reduce confusion, both the Westminster Divines and we often use the words corruption, sinfulness, or indwelling sin to refer to the fallen nature of humanity.  Paul calls it flesh, darkness, death, sin, and a variety of terms to express the same idea.  When we’re referring to the first definition above, we often use the word transgression but, in many cases, we just use the word sin.  In fact, when we talk of sin we typically think of transgression.  The Westminster Standards, however, will sometimes be more precise but they’ll also use the word “sin” throughout to either refer to indwelling sin or to actual transgression.  On a theological and exegetical basis there is nothing unusual about this.

In fact, it is quite important that we not get so technical in our terminology or so euphemize sin that we downplay the sinfulness of sin.  Within the past few years, it has become very common to simply refer to ourselves a broken.  This implies some sort of accident and doesn’t express how dire the circumstance is that humanity is corporately responsible for our corruption and that our sin-nature is so enslaving that it takes Christ’s death on a Cross to break its power.

Think about a first-century Christian reading Paul’s letters to them about how they are to battle sin in their members.  Paul didn’t utilize several different words to describe these three meanings that harmartia conveys, but it is found within the context.  One might imagine a modern Pastor cautioning Paul that to call our desires sin might discourage a Christian but the context of his letter makes plain what the use of that word conveys and, expressed properly, it is quite comforting and empowering to stick to the meanings of the word sin when counseling a person how they might resist sin and temptation from the point it arises within the law of our flesh through temptation as it entices us to give in to its demands.  By understanding that this is sin from conception to possible transgression, the believer knows it is to be resisted at all points and not merely abstracted or euphemized at some point in that formation.

This is why Owen, in his writings on Sin and Temptation, is so helpful.  His works are a masterpiece in defining the root and power of indwelling sin and how it entices us to think that we must still obey its demands.  His pastoral counsel to those struggling with sin and temptation is to put it to death as soon as possible as it is running its course.  He helps us to see the many ways we let down our guards as we consider the power and pervasiveness of sin too lightly.  He describes temptation from its early warning signs to when it is fully raging and provides Biblical counsel on how to resist it by all means that the Spirit provides.

Keeping the preceding in mind, we can start to understand why we might speak of sin and temptation in different ways in different circumstances without actually contradicting ourselves.

Consider Christ.  He was born in every way like us, yet without sin (Heb 4:15).  It’s not merely the case that Christ didn’t commit actual transgressions (definition 1), but He was born without corruption (definitions 2 and 3).  He was not sinful nor under sin’s dominion.  Where we face sins from the world, the flesh, and the devil Christ was tempted by the world and the devil.  He was not sold under a sin, nor did he have a “law of sin” operating within His member where sin might arise, or temptations might excite to form evil desires within Him.  He was born upright (without corruption), and He faced fiercer temptations than we can imagine and, by His own strength with the Spirit, resisted temptation.  The external temptations might be considered evil (as they came from the world and the devil) but Christ Himself was “without sin” as none of those temptations excited a law within with which sins would be conceived from His own sinfulness.

Romans 6:1-11 teaches us that Christ put the power of sin (this realm of sin and death) to death on a Cross that it might no longer enslave those who are united to Him.  We no longer must obey its passions because He put sin, as power, to death on a Cross.  With Him, we are also raised with His indestructible life so that we are empowered to live unto righteousness.

This is not Christian perfectionism.  As Paul labors in Romans 7, Christ has united us to Himself while our sin (corruption, sinfulness) remains within us as a principle that is inclined to evil.  That law is still operative, and we are commanded, by Christ’s power, to reckon ourselves dead to this principle of sin and alive to Christ, and this is the basis for sanctification as we live together as Christians in this battle to put sin more and more to death.  We starve it out.  We hate it, and our consciences are more and more trained to die to sin and live to Christ.  Obedience is possible – not perfect obedience – but the Spirit provides the power to turn from the desires that our corruptions provoke and to turn toward obedience as we are united to Christ’s life.

Thus, when we consider temptation, we are in Christ, but we are not Christ.  We still have this law within our members, and it is proper to name it as sin even as the Scriptures name it as such.  We can distinguish it as sinfulness or corruption in a dictionary sense to distinguish the context we are dealing with, but we dare not underestimate its motions within our souls.

As sin originates within this law within our members it creates a desire born of sin: James 1:14–15 – “ 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.”

The Greek word that is translated as desire here is ἐπιθυμίας (epithumias) and is best understood as a “great desire” or “a desire for something forbidden.”  Contextually, James is not giving us some philosophical treatment about distinguishing between some generic desire that only becomes sin after temptation, but his concern is similar to the manner in which Paul talks about the conception of sin arising from, well, sin itself (remember the word has many meanings).

It is not pastorally helpful to tease apart stages in sin formation by creating some sort of “safe space” where the Christian can convince himself:  “I haven’t sinned yet because it’s just a desire.”  This desire is not yet, perhaps, a transgression of the Law, but it is still, by nature, sin in the Biblical use of the word as noted throughout.  The believer is to recognize this as arising within this law within his members and resist it by Christ’s power with all his might.  He shouldn’t be taught to engage in self-loathing (how could anybody who is a Christian ever have a desire like this) but he is to engage in sin-loathing (I see within me a law that would tempt me to sin – Romans 7:17,20).  It is at the place of temptation to recognize that sin is afoot; the law is at work.  Sin is conceived.  Will I give in or call it what it is in Christ and put it to death?!

In conclusion, we can see that both exegetically and theologically, the word sin carries more than one connotation.  It is not merely the commission of an actual transgression.  It involves not only the transgression but the sin-nature and the powerful invading law that would have us commit sins.  Whenever we euphemize sin or downplay it or try to create spaces within our hearts that are not sin then we are not only inconsistent with the Biblical witness but we disarm ourselves from seeing sin for what it is and fighting it with the power that Christ provides.