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Sin: The Forgotten Doctrine

Studies continually show that most Americans—including many Christians—have poor theology. There is a lot of confusion about the person of Christ, the nature of salvation, and the attributes of God.

And yet there is one particular doctrine that has pressing implications for so much of Christian theology, which in my experience, seems to have been forgotten in the church and the wider culture—the sinfulness of man. Do we really grasp how deeply human nature has been corrupted by sin? Failing to grasp the nuances and depth of human sinfulness has massive implications for one’s theology and for all of life.

Sin Doctrine

The consistent biblical teaching is that mankind is made in God’s image with inestimable worth, but has been deeply flawed by sin (Mark 7:21-23; John 2:24-25; Romans 3:9-20). How can I claim human sinfulness has been lost? Let me share two stories.

The Problem of Hell

Recently I was speaking at a youth group in southern California, not far from where I live. After the service, a college student, who described himself as a former Christian, wanted to discuss the “Problem of Hell.” We talked for nearly 45 minutes and he raised the standard objections against the justice of Hell: How could a loving God send someone to Hell? How can a finite sin warrant an eternal punishment? How can people enjoy Heaven knowing their loved ones are in Hell? I did my best to respond with both kindness and truth.

After our talk, it seemed that I had made almost no “dent” with his questions. He still thought God was a moral monster. And then it dawned on me: His problem was that he saw human being as basically good. If humans are basically good, and simply commit a few “sins” in their lifetime, as he believed, then Hell does seem like overkill. Moreover, Hell can only begin to make sense when we grasp the biblical view of mankind—that we are made in God’s image with infinite dignity, value, and worth, but our natures have been deeply corrupted because of sin. An unbiblical view of the nature of man was at the heart of his rejection of the faith.

Niceness vs. Goodness

Each year I take a group of high school students on an apologetics or worldview mission trip. The goal is to train our students how to lovingly defend their faith by having conversations and interactions with people who hold very different faiths. Inspired by my friend Brett Kunkle, we started taking teenagers on trips to Berkeley to interact with students at UC Berkeley and also with leading atheists and agnostics from the Bay area. Both students and parents loved the trips, and I never received any critical feedback about the nature of the trip.

But then we decided to take students to Salt Lake City to interact with Mormon students at BYU. While most students and parents were supportive, one girl who chose not to go on the trip made a statement that expressed the thinking of a number of people: “Why are we going to SLC to beat up on Mormons?” It was strange she talked about beating up anybody, because we are very relational and gracious in our approach on all our mission trips.

But it also puzzled me that she was particularly defensive about reaching out to members of the LDS Church. And then I put my finger on it—she had trouble reaching out to Mormons because they are such nice people.[1] And they are! I have many friends who are Mormons and they are remarkably nice and hard working.

But we must not confuse niceness with goodness. Jesus taught that no one is truly good. That’s right, no one (Luke 18:19). That includes you and me. And it includes people of every faith or no faith (Romans 3:23).

We can respond to our sinfulness in different ways. One way, like the prodigal son, is to indulge our passions and ignore restraint. Another way, like the older son in the same parable (Luke 15:11-32), is to try to earn our righteousness by doing good works and following the law. What is interesting about this parable is that both sons were separated from the father and failed to understand what he desired from them—the younger son who rebelled, and the older son who was dutiful.

The Offensiveness of Human Sinfulness

The doctrine of human sinfulness is offensive. No one likes being told that his or her own heart is fallen and in desperate need of transformation (myself included). We would much rather embrace the New Age idea that we are one with God. And yet the Christian story makes no sense without it. If humans were not “desperately wicked,” as the Bible teaches, then Hell would be total overkill. And there’s no need to reach out to people who are dutiful and nice.

But if human sinfulness is real, then the Christian story makes sense. We can at least begin to understand the reality of Hell and the need to reach all people with God’s grace. There are many doctrines we should be concerned about properly teaching the next generation. But in my experience, when people grasp their own sinfulness (and the converse, that God is holy), the rest begin to fall in place.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.


[1] Which is doubly strange, since Mormons send out missionaries to knock on the doors of strangers to spread their version of the gospel. I don’t fault them for this. In fact, I respect their efforts.

 


 

What Does Christianity Say About the Nature of Humans?

What Does Christianity Say About the Nature of HumansAfter speaking at a church recently, I was approached by a woman who identified herself as a defense attorney and a Christian. She told me she struggled to understand how some of the suspects I’d arrested for cold-case murders had been able to live law-abiding, uneventful lives for thirty years (or more) following their crimes. She seemed to believe these men and women should not have been unable to live amongst the rest of us without giving themselves away. Her surprise is common amongst those who live and work with killers. When I eventually take a murderer to jail years after he or she committed the crime, their friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers typically express disbelief: “There’s no way Jack could have committed that murder, I’ve known him for twenty years. He’s the sweetest man I’ve ever known!” When a suspect is finally convicted of the crime (and eventually confesses to the murder), those who knew him or her are typically shocked. They shouldn’t be. My cold case murderers were not serial killers. They simply committed one horrific crime and then spent the rest of their life living just like you and me. Nothing in their demeanor ever gave away the fact they were capable of such a thing. They looked like the rest of us. Why? Because they are just like the rest of us; capable of greatness, but fallen to their core.

Even before I was a Christian, I recognized the innately fallen nature of humans. If you are a parent, you also have some empirical evidence from which to draw. You know you don’t have to teach your infant to be selfish, impatient, rude and self-serving. Infants must be taught to be just the opposite; goodness is not an innate quality of humans. We don’t come into the world with this type of disposition. We must be taught how to love, how to think beyond our own needs and desires, how to share and appreciate others. Do you remember the experiment you studied in high school in which monkeys were taken from their mothers and raised without any personal contact, comfort or love? How did they turn out? They were sociopaths; angry, evil and dangerous. This was, in fact, their base nature unless they were taught to be something different.

Both atheists and theists have to explain the innately fallen nature of humans, especially given the fact we are simultaneously capable of kindness and nobility. This is often described as “the enigma of man” and the Christian Scriptures capture and describe this reality with surprising clarity and foresight. While we have been created in the image of God (and, as a result, are capable of greatness) we were given the dangerous freedom to love genuinely. We sometimes abuse this freedom as rebellious creatures. The Bible describes human nature as innately fallen from birth, incapable of true goodness (without God’s assistance) and unwilling (on our own) to seek the face of God:

Our Beginnings Are Not Innocent Enough
From the very start, (from our birth), we are not innocent and inclined toward goodness. Instead, we are born as the offspring of Adam, inclined toward sin:

Romans 5:12
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned

1 Corinthians 15:20-22
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.

Psalm 51:5
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.

Ephesians 2:1-3
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

Our Natural Condition Is Not Capable Enough
Even as we grow and learn to be good from those who teach and love us, we are still filled with the inclination to do what is wrong. All of us struggle with this if we are honest about it. We are slaves to our inclinations. We have a hidden thought life, and this life exposes who and what we really are. And there are many times when we choose to act on these thoughts. You and I both know this is true. We are not consistently capable of true goodness:

Jeremiah 17:9
The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?

Romans 3:23
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

John 8:34
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin

Job 15:14-16
“What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in His sight; How much less one who is detestable and corrupt, Man, who drinks iniquity like water!”

Our Desire Is Not Strong Enough
We are also typically uninterested in the things of God. In our natural state, we are rebellious and our desire for God is weak and fading. Our fallen nature prevents us from recognizing or understanding spiritual things:

John 5:40-41
…and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life

1 Corinthians 2:14
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

Romans 3:10-18
…as it is written,

There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.
Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,
The poison of asps is under their lips;
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness;
Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace have they not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Romans 1:18-19
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.

Our Lives Are Not Righteous Enough
Even our “good deeds” are not all that good. Sure, we may think we are doing something noble, but there is generally something in it for us; some hidden, self-serving motive. And even our best efforts pale by comparison to the standard of righteousness existing in the God of the Universe.

Isaiah 64:6
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

James 2:10
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

Galatians 3:10-11
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.”

Romans 3:27-28
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Our “Goodness” Is Not Our Own
In case you think those moments of compassion or righteousness you occasionally achieve were the result of your own ability or effort, think again. Even our best moments are simply the work of God. On our own we are completely incapable of choosing God or doing anything righteous in the sight of God. When we do act righteously, it is simply God’s Spirit and Word acting within us:

John 6:44
No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:65
And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

Philippians 2:12-13
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

1 Thessalonians 2:13
And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.

Romans 9:16
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

John 1:12-13
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

The Bible paints a pretty ugly picture of our human nature, doesn’t it? It sure sounds like we are lost and wandering, incapable of seeking God and incapable of impressing God with our own “good” efforts. It sounds like bad news, and that is exactly what it is. But there is something very special about the Christian message. There is Good News: the God of the universe is not going to judge us on our fallen nature or our inadequate efforts. Instead, He is going to allow Jesus to pay the price for our sin and save us as an act of grace. We may be fallen, but we do matter to God:

Ephesians 2:4-5
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)

Colossians 2:13-15
And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Titus 2:11-12
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men,

Galatians 2:16
…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.

Titus 3:5-7
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

So why is this “Doctrine of Man” so important? Why do we, as Christians, need to understand the Christian position on this issue? Why is a proper understanding of humanity so important to Christian Orthodoxy? Well, if we don’t first understand our desperate need, we won’t come to understand the power and urgency of the Good News of Jesus. If you don’t understand your true condition, your fallen nature and the inability of your own efforts to save yourself, you won’t move to seek and find the Savior who has come to give us what we simply can’t earn on our own. We need a proper understanding of our human nature so we can have a correct understanding of our spiritual need and a proper appreciation for the power and grace of God. This understanding will eventually shape our love and awe of God, our gratitude for Salvation and our love of the Savior. Without an understanding of who we are, we can never truly appreciate who God is.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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