What Is Sin, and What Can We Do About It?

I. "She took of its fruit and ate": What Is Sin (if 'anything')?
As moral evil (e.g., murder), sin differs from natural evil (e.g., earthquakes).
Much Christian discourse confuses them (cf. Luke 13:4-5).
Sin is popularly understood as guilt, but that is only one dimension!
"The fall" describes sin as humanity's epic failure (Gen 3).
As contradiction, sin doesn't start with God, but is against God.
As negation or privation of good, sin is not a thing in itself but absence (Augustine, C.S. Lewis).
As irresponsibility, sin exploits God's good gifts for others' purposes.
As darkness, foolishness, and lie, sin is ignorant, absurd, insane, and self-deceptive,
enslaving 'that which is' to 'that which is not' (Theodore Dalrymple, "Choosing to Fail").
So sin cannot ever make sense, or be made sense of.
Only Jesus' counterexample truly shows sin as unnatural, as falling short (Rom 3:23, John 1:17).
II. "She gave some ... and he ate": Sin's Spread
As a condition, sin causes more sin. But how? Two accounts:
Original sin: Adam's sin and guilt are inherited legally or biologically (Augustine on Ps 51 and Rom 5:12; Catholicism, Protestantism).
Ancestral sin: Adam's sin is transmitted socially (Cappadocian Fathers, John Cassian; Eastern Orthodoxy).
III. "The man and his wife hid": Sin's Social Manifestations
As rebellion and alienation, sin breaks humanity's constitutive relationships:
As structural, sin disorders social ways of life.
As demonic, sin is powerful, clever, tenacious, and oppressive.

As satanic, sin constructs "the world" (John 12:31) and its ruler (Luke 10:17-20, Rev 12:9).
As corruption, sin threatens the undoing of humanity and all creation (Athanasius).
IV. "I ate": Sin's Personal Manifestations
As personal, sin turns us into sinners, people characterized by sin.
Augustine: as inordinate love, personal sin is unbelief, pride, rebellion, idolatry, sloth, etc.
Feminist and liberation theology: as self-effacement or self-loathing, sin is also pride's opposite.
In all these forms, sin is human self-centeredness and self-destruction.
Tim Keller, Prodigal God: Luke 15:11-32's two sons both embody self-made alienation.
V. "Dust you are and to dust you will return": Sin's End
As curse, sin earns condemnation and consequences (Rom 6:23, Isa 66:24, Matt 25:41, 46, Jude 4, Masacchio's Expulsion from Eden).
Where does sin's course lead? Influential images:
death: Sheol (Eccl 9:5-10, cf. John 3:15, Jude 9), hades (Luke 16:23-31, Rev 1:18, cf. Jude 13);
disposal: gehenna (Matt 10:28, Mark 9:43-48, cf. Jude 11), outer darkness (Matt 8:12, 22:13, 25:30, Jude 13);
punishment/repossession: cherem (Josh 6:17-19, Isa 43:28), wrath, a 'lake of fire' (Jude 7, Rev 19:20, 20:10-15)
(Do these anticipate, respectively, atonement theories of Christus Victor, moral influence, and reparation?)
Later Christian tradition develops doctrines of sin and grace in terms of
sins' distinct forms and consequences (Dante's Divine Comedy), and
sins' comparative gravity (mortal and venial sins).

VI. "If he should stretch out his hand": What Can We Do About Sin?
What is, and is not, compromised by sin?

Two visions of human will, fallenness, grace, and salvation
(adapted from Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 428ff):
Pelagius Augustine
freedom of the human will intact and able to choose either good or evil incapacitated through sin, but not destroyed
nature of sin merely willful acts against God also a disease, a power, disability, addiction, guilt
nature of grace intact human capacity to avoid sin and choose grace; one-time forgiveness for past sins at baptism; enlightenment given by Christ's example unmerited favor, given even in producing the original choice to repent
basis of salvation personal holiness gained from forgiveness, fulfilling God's obligations, and Christ's example gracious promises of God, received through faith

Pelagius: With free will we can still choose good over evil.
Augustine (On Free Will): Sin corrupts everything, including the mind.
Thus through free will, people always choose evil.
Outcome: The councils of Ephesus (431) and Orange (529) repudiate Pelagianism.
Eastern Orthodoxy teaches synergy of divine and human cooperation.
Western Christianity teaches total depravity and prevenient grace.
Lesson: Where sin is trivialized, grace is trivialized (cf. Rom. 5:20).
VII. "To guard the way to the tree of life": What Then?
Athanasius and Anselm both pose sin's dilemma for God:
Mercy compromises God's justice.
Yet justly destroying creation is an unjust concession to evil.
The dilemma's solution: God comes, with 'merciful justice',
sacrifically ("God made garments of skins and clothed them").
Jesus is both the measure of sin and its solution.
Hebrews 11 summarizes the story following Genesis 3:
"My righteous one, by faith, will live" (Habakkuk 2:4 in Heb 10:38, Rom 1:17).

Self-Test