This up-to-date monograph on the doctrine of sin looks at what the Bible teaches about sin, exploring its origin, nature, and consequences, and engages with historical and contemporary movements.
About the Author
Thomas H. McCall(PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. He is also professorial fellow in analytic and exegetical theology at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including many on the Trinity.
John S. Feinberg (PhD, University of Chicago) is department chair and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Ethics for a Brave New World (with Paul D. Feinberg) and is general editor of Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.
Read an Excerpt
Sin is whatever is opposed to God's will, as that will reflects God's holy character and as that will is expressed by God's commands. Sin is fundamentally opposed to nature and reason, and it is ultimately opposed to God. The results of sin are truly catastrophic — sin wreaks havoc on our relationships with God, one another, and the rest of creation. It is universal in human history and manifests itself in various cultural expressions. It wrecks human lives, and it leaves us broken and vulnerable. It also leaves us needing grace and longing for redemption.
I. The Study of Sin
And yet we commonly find ways to downplay, deny, or ignore the reality of sin. The words of Walter Rauschenbusch remain relevant and convicting: "We have been neglecting the doctrine of sin in our theology." As Martin Luther King Jr. puts it, "In the modern world, we hate to hear this word 'sin'" — and this despite the sobering realization of the fact that sin is "one of the basic facts of the universe" and is "set forth on almost every page of the Bible."
So how do we know sin? The answers may seem obvious, but the sober truth is that the very existence of sin (as a religious category and theological doctrine) is sometimes denied. Moreover, the Christians who do believe in the reality and gravity of sin often disagree over different understandings of the doctrine itself. So what sense can be made of it? How can we know it?
On one hand, it seems that sin can be known merely from observation of human existence. Sin is sometimes said to be "the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith" — and this statement is often accompanied by the assumption that it clearly is empirically verifiable. As King expresses the point, "we just need to look around a little, that's all, and we discover it everywhere." Sin can be known through the study of human existence and experience; we learn of sin through social and intellectual history, through psychology and sociology — and we learn of it by introspection. There is much to be said for this approach, for it is intuitive to many people not merely that unfortunate things happen but that many things are wrong — morally wrong — with our world. Moreover, witness to the depravity of humanity can be found in many religious and philosophical traditions. For instance, an ancient Sumerian inscription tells us that "never has a sinless child been born to its mother." The Chinese philosopher Xunzi claims that all people "are born with feelings of hate and dislike in them. ... Thus, if people follow with their inborn dispositions and obey their nature, they are sure to come to struggle and contention, turn to disrupting social divisions and order, and end up becoming violent. ... it is clear that people's nature is bad, and their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort." The evidence is clear enough that even Karl Barth, when commenting on Romans 3, will say that "[t]he whole course of history pronounces this judgment against itself. ... If all the great outstanding figures in history ... were asked their opinion, would one of them assert that men were good, or even capable of good? Is the doctrine of original sin merely one doctrine among many? Is it not rather ... the Doctrine which emerges from all honest study of history?" On this approach, much can be known about sin apart from divine revelation; "even those who do not know that Jesus Christ is Lord know sin."
On the other hand, many theologians argue forcefully that we cannot really know sin apart from divine revelation. As William H. Willimon says, "We have no means of being cognizant of sin without the grace of God." For Christians, knowing sin as sin "is derivative of and dependent on what Christians know about God as revealed in Christ." Barth articulates a thunderous statement of this view:
As the opposition of man to God, his neighbour, and himself, sin is more than a relative and limited conflict which works itself out only in himself and which can therefore be known in the self-consciousness and self-understanding which he can have of himself. As the one who commits sin man is himself totally and radically compromised. Where there is a true knowledge of sin, it can be only as an element in the knowledge of God, of revelation, and therefore of faith, for which he cannot in any way prepare himself. Man is corrupt even in his self-understanding, even in the knowledge of his corruption. He cannot see, therefore, beyond the inner conflict and its purely relative compass. He can never really see his sin, and himself as the man of sin. He cannot turn to a true knowledge of his corruption, but only evade it. God and His revelation and faith are all needed if he is to realise the accusation and judgment and condemnation under which he stands, and the transgression and ensuing need in which he exists.
Barth is certain that accurate self-diagnosis is impossible. Willimon concurs: "The only means of understanding our sin with appropriate seriousness and without despair is our knowledge of a God who manages to be both gracious and truthful. ... Only through the story of the cross of Christ do we see the utter depth and seriousness of our sin."
There seems to be a further problem. If sin is what the Bible says it is and does what the Bible says it does, then it is "deceitful" and causes blindness (Jer. 17:9; cf. John 12:40; Heb. 3:13; 1 John 2:11). As Ian McFarland points out, "Because sin is something of which everyone is guilty all the time, the very capacity to know it and name it is vitiated by human beings' status as sinners. It follows that human beings can know the depth of their sin only as it is forgiven — and thus only as it is made known to us by the one who forgives. ... the concept only has meaning from within the context of Christian belief."
But Barth also raises another concern; this is the worry that our attempts at such self-diagnosis are not only impossible but are also idolatrous. As he puts it,
Nor is it clear how it can be otherwise than that a doctrine of sin which precedes Christology and is independent of it should consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, move in the direction of [idolatry]. To affirm evil as such it is forced to have an independent standard of good and evil and to apply that standard. But independently of Christology what standard can there be other than a normative concept constructed either from philosophical or biblical materials or a combination of the two?
Accordingly, when we so much as try to understand sin apart from God and his revelation in Christ, we thereby do so with reference to a moral compass that has some kind of independent authority. But, for Barth, there can be no such moral authority independent of God and his revelation in Christ, and therefore such an effort is impossible. And, so the criticism goes, since any such supposed moral authority would be an autonomous entity standing in judgment apart from God, it would be an idol. The upshot of this is plain: the very effort to understand sin apart from God's revelatory and salvific action can itself be an act of sin. Such an effort is itself doomed to failure — and it only deepens the problem.
One interesting way of approaching the doctrine of sin is exemplified in the evangelical theologies of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and John Wesley (1703–1791). For all their sharp disagreements over disputed matters of doctrinal importance, they held a great deal in common theologically — and nowhere more clearly than with respect to the doctrine of sin. The work of Edwards on the doctrine of sin is well known; what is not as well known is the parallel work being done across the Atlantic by the evangelist and itinerant minister John Wesley. Wesley's work, which predates that of Edwards by less than a year, shares several fascinating features with the more famous treatise written by his American contemporary. The fact that they have theological disagreements is well known, and their reputations for debate are well deserved. But with respect to their doctrines of sin, the agreement is both considerable and important; and where there are disagreements, they do not run along the predictable "Calvinist vs. Arminian" lines — if anything, Wesley is arguably in closer continuity with the confessional Reformed tradition than is Edwards. For while Wesley defends the treatment of hamartiology in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) — even down to the details of the federalist account of imputation — Edwards is more willing to diverge in creative ways. Interestingly, not only do they write at the same time, but both are exercised to defend the historic Christian doctrine of original sin from attacks on various fronts. Both are concerned to combat the "latitudinarian" and "deist" denials of original sin — indeed, both respond directly and extensively to John Taylor's work. Both are concerned to account for the reality of sin's enslaving power and to account for the responsibility of the human sinner.
Wesley begins his treatise on the doctrine of original sin with what amounts to a phenomenology of religion. In "Part One" of what is a long and demanding work, he argues from observations of human history and society. This notably includes reliance on Christian Scripture, and he places special emphasis on the antediluvian verdict: "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). But while Wesley's work here appeals to the Bible, it extends far beyond biblical sources to include ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature as well. Here Wesley points out how even the most "civilized" peoples tolerated and sometimes even applauded all manner of personal and social sins (including not only exploitation of various subjugated peoples but also sexual malfeasance and savagery as well as abortion and infanticide). He moves from this to an account of contemporary "paganism" and "heathenism," and here he gives a sweeping survey of social practices in Africa, Asia, and the Americas (as he understands them). He notes that across the world we see "gluttons, drunkards, thieves, dissemblers, and liars" who are "implacable" and "unmerciful." Looking across contemporary Muslim cultures, he notes their "gross" and "horrible notion of God" as well as the widespread proclivity toward violence against all who might disagree with them.
Turning his focus to "the Christian world," Wesley criticizes Orthodox cultures for their ignorance and superstition. Meanwhile, he is convinced that many Roman Catholics are actually deists (rather than orthodox Christians), and he points to both the prevalence of individual crimes (e.g., murder) and the potency of institutionalized corruption and violence in the Inquisition and the wars of religion against the Protestants that have plagued Europe. But while he is sharply critical of "heathens," Muslims, and Roman Catholics, Wesley saves special invective for Protestant cultures. He exempts no group or class from his scathing critique: it is not merely the undereducated or economically suppressed strata of society who engage in willful and heinous sin; to the contrary, all manner of evildoing is all too evident within the highest echelons. Drawing upon recent historical work, he concludes that the "last century" is only
a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres; the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition could produce. ... How many villains have been exalted to the highest places of trust, power, dignity, and profit! By what method have great numbers in all countries procured titles of honor and vast estates? Perjury, oppression, subordination, fraud, panderism were some of the most excusable. For many owed their greatness to sodomy or incest: others, to the prostituting of their own wives or daughters: others, to the betraying of their country or their prince; more, to the perverting of justice to destroy the innocent.
And this, Wesley is convinced, is the state of "Christian" and even Protestant peoples too.
Wesley concludes that the universal misery of humanity is both the source and the result of the sin that plagues humanity. Thus "sin is the baleful source of affliction; and consequently, the flood of miseries which covers the face of the earth ... is demonstrative proof of the overflowing of ungodliness in every nation under heaven." Wesley then turns to "Part Two," his "Scriptural Method of Accounting" for this universal depravity. He works through two distinct sets of scriptural texts: those that directly prove the doctrine of original sin, and those that illustrate it. Especially important here is Matthew 15:19: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." He also shows how the doctrine of sin is integrally related to other major points of Christian doctrine, and thus how a proper understanding of it is vital to a proper understanding of the gospel itself.
Jonathan Edwards proceeds along similar lines. Also arguing directly against John Taylor, he begins with observations about the human condition and then moves to a biblically grounded theological understanding of that condition. In "Part One," he draws upon "observation" and "experience" to present "Evidences from Facts and Events." These "observations" demonstrate the following: first, that "All mankind do constantly, in all Ages, without fail in any Instance, run into that moral evil which is in effect their own utter and eternal Perdition," that from this it follows that "all mankind are under the influence of a prevailing effectual tendency in their Nature to that Sin and Wickedness," and that this depravity is a "propensity to sin immediately, continually, and progressively."
After laying out these depressing lines of evidence, Edwards addresses what he takes to be common "evasions," and he argues that universal mortality proves the doctrine of original sin. He then turns to Scripture to offer a theological account of this depraved human condition, and only after this does he turn to address objections to the doctrine (and it is only here that Edwards engages in his speculative metaphysics).
While certainly not endorsing all their judgments (e.g., about other cultures and religions), and without following them in the details of their proposals (with respect to both exegesis of particular texts and metaphysical speculation), I think that there is much that is right about the general approaches of Wesley and Edwards. They are correct to point out that "general revelation" shows us that something is desperately wrong with humans in their current condition; we know that something is seriously wrong from common human experience. And they are absolutely right to insist that we can come to an adequate understanding of just what has gone wrong only in light of God's "special revelation" (as this comes reliably through the truthfulness of Holy Scripture and ultimately in the Truth that is incarnate as Jesus Christ). For although we find that recognition of the reality of sin is unavoidable, given observation of human experience, and although we can learn much about sin by study of that human experience, we cannot have an adequate understanding of it precisely as sin apart from divine revelation and the theological reflection that is made possible by that revelation.
II. Sources for the Study of Sin
Evidence of sin is splashed across the pages of human history. Tendencies toward sinful behavior are embedded deep within the human psyche. The stark reality of sin's consequences is portrayed, in penetrating, vivid, and powerful ways, in the text of sacred Scripture. Sin is everywhere; the manifestations are legion, and the effects are both deep and pervasive. Sin is also both evasive and sinister, and it is not easy for us to come to grips with it. So how are we to study it?
In this volume we approach the theological task with the conviction that Scripture is finally normative and supremely authoritative in theology. We learn about sin precisely as sin from the biblical revelation; without the Bible we might know that something is wrong with the human condition, but we would not know it accurately as sin. As the inspired and authoritative witness to God's self-disclosure, as this culminates in Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Bible is properly understood as revelation (in the appropriate sense) and is the "norming norm" (norma normans) that is the final authority in all matters of theology. As such, it informs, guides, and corrects our theological endeavors. As Oliver D. Crisp puts it, the Bible is the "final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people" and the "first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine." Accordingly, in this study we seek to learn about sin from its depiction in the Bible. As an exercise in "canonical-theological" interpretation of Scripture, we take Scripture in its canonical form and interpret it to learn about God and all things as they relate to God. More specifically, we appreciate the literary and theological unity of the Bible, and Scripture guides and norms our understanding of what sin is in relation to God.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Against God and Nature"
Copyright © 2019 Thomas H. McCall.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Series Introduction 13
Chapter 1 Introduction 21
I The Study of Sin
II Sources for the Study of Sin
III The Shape of This Study
IV Approaching the Study of Sin: The Appropriate Posture
Chapter 2 Sin According to Scripture: A First Look 33
II Biblical Vocabulary
A Major Old Testament Terms for Sin
B Important New Testament Terms for Sin
III A Biblical Theologogical Overview
A Sin in the Beginnings
B Sin in Israel's Continuing Story
C Sin in Israel's Wisdom Literature
D Sin According to Israel's Prophets
E Sin in the Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles
F Pauline Hamartiology
G Sin in Hebrews and the General Epistles
H Johannine Hamartiology
IV Sin in Biblical Theology: A Summary of Several Key Themes
A The Royal-Legal Metaphor
B Familial Metaphors
C The Nuptial Metaphor
D Conclusion: Sin as Idolatry
Chapter 3 The Origin of Sin 113
II Temptation and Fall
A The Setting
B The Way of Temptation
C The Fall
D The Immediate Consequences of the Fall
E Further Theological Reflection
III The Origin of Human Sin
A Ultimate Cosmic Dualism Is Ruled Out
B Divine "Authorship" or Causation of Sin Rejected
C Necessity of the Fall Is Inconsistent with Scripture
D The Story Line of Scripture
IV The Origin of Angelic Sin
A The Biblical Witness
B Insights from the Christian Tradition
Chapter 4 The Doctrine of Original Sin 149
II The Major Theological Options: A Brief Description
A (Merely) Symbolic and Existentialist Interpretations
B Corruption-Only Doctrines
C Corruption and Guilt: Federalism
D Corruption and Guilt: Realism
E Corruption and Guilt: Mediate Views
F Conditional Imputation of Guilt
III The Scriptural Basis Revisited
A A Brief Overview of Romans 5:12-
B Important Phrases
C Views Excluded by the Text
D Views Consistent with the Text
IV The Metaphysics and Morals of Original Sin (Once Again)
A Edwardsian Realism
B Modified Edwardsian Realism
C Mediate Views: With Molinism
E Corruption-Only Views
B Original Sin and Christian Witness
Chapter 5 The "Sin Nature" and the "Nature" of Sin 207
II Does the Believer Have "Two Natures"? Understanding Talk of the "Sin Nature"
A Human Nature and Sin: Some Clarifications and an Important Methodological Reminder
B Two-Nature Hamartiology Introduced
C Two-Nature Hamartiology Considered
III The "Nature" of Sin
A Contrary to Nature
B Contrary to Reason
C Contrary to God
IV Sin and Sins: Some Important Distinctions
A Sins of Commission and Sins of Omission
B Sins against God, Sins against Neighbor, Sins against Self
C Grievous Sins and Less-Grievous Sins
D Intentional Sins and Unintentional Sins
E Mortal Sins and Venial Sins
F Remissible Sins and Irremissible Sins
G Individual or Personal Sins and Social, Structural, or Systemic Sins
H The "Seven Deadly Sins"
Chapter 6 "The Wages of Sin": The Results of Sin 279
I Enslavement and Debility
A Augustine and the Battle with 'Pelagianism": Learning from Historical Theology
B Enslaved and Ensnared
III Guilt and Shame
IV Sin and Death
A The "Wages of Sin": An Introduction to the Topic (That Needs No Introduction)
B Seeing through the Complications: Some Distinctions in Pursuit of Clarity
C Any and All Death?
D Moving Forward
V The judgment and Wrath of God
A The Wrath of God
B The Love of God
C Love and Wrath in Scripture: A Brief Summary
D Love and Wrath in the Hands of the Theologians
E Love, Wrath, and the Gospel
Chapter 7 "Where Sin Abounded": Sin and Grace 339
I Sin and Gracious Providence
A Some Central Theological Affirmations
B Some Notable-But Flawed-Attempts at Doctrinal Formulation
C The Traditional Doctrine Once More
II Sin and Prevenient Grace
III Sin and Justifying Grace
IV Sin and Regenerating, Converting Grace
D The Familial Depiction
V Sin and Sanctifying Grace
A The Nuptial Context and Content of the Doctrine of Sanctification
B But Can It Actually Happen? A Closer Look at Romans
C But Does It Happen? Holiness and the Christian Life
Chapter 8 Conclusion 379
Appendix: The Original Sinners 383
II The Challenge
III The Problem? Toward Clarification
IV Some Possibilities
A The Refurbishment Proposal(s)
B The Hyper-Adam Proposal
C The Genealogical-Adam Proposal
V Taking Stock
Scripture Index 405
General Index 423
What People are Saying About This
“Thomas McCall proves himself a knowledgeable, reliable, and congenial guide to the sad subject of human sin. Here you will find a vigorous and invigorating loyalty to, and defense of, the orthodox Christian tradition. McCall’s argument is firmly rooted in the biblical storyline, well conversant with the history of discussion, and philosophically careful. He shows respect to the various branches of Christianity, offering advice on how they can refine and improve their positions on issues where they differ from one another, and he strengthens their confidence in the large swaths of agreement between them. You can tell as well that McCall, the serious scholar, also loves God and his people, and wants us to aspire to holiness.”
C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary
“This book is a gift. Dealing with one of the more contentious issues in theology today, McCall offers a discussion that is judicious, clear, and thought-provoking from beginning to end. It comprehensively surveys the biblical material and historical discussions, deals fairly with a broad range of theological perspectives, and constructively addresses the most difficult questions raised by this much-maligned doctrine. And yet somehow it does all of this while remaining thoroughly readable throughout. I have long hoped to find a comprehensive and up-to-date survey of the doctrine of sin and its significance for theology today, and I think this is it.”
Marc Cortez, Professor of Theology, Wheaton College Graduate School
“In Against God and Nature, Thomas McCall invites us to join him as he thoughtfully guides us through a thorough, careful, and insightful exploration of the doctrine of sin from biblical, historical, philosophical, theological, pastoral, and practical perspectives. Wide-ranging in his interaction with the biblical text and with other thinkers through the centuries, this first-rate theologian wrestles with the personal, societal, private, and public aspects of this oft-neglected area of theology. Offering careful exegesis of the central biblical texts on this subject, our author serves as a judicious and astute guide through the issues of original sin, guilt, corruption, and the multiple dimensions of sin. In doing so, he avoids the trap of popular psychobabble while, with pastoral sensitivity, leading readers to a deeper and more thoroughly biblical understanding of the awfulness of sin, idolatry, transgression, and depravity. He helps us all to gain a more theologically informed grasp of the important issues of humanity and our desperate need for rescue, redemption, forgiveness, and salvation. Against God and Nature is an extremely valuable work that I am delighted to recommend.”
David S. Dockery,Chancellor, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“No area of Christian theology is more obscure, complex, confused, and convoluted than the doctrine of sin. It is therefore splendid to have such a clear, thorough, erudite, and comprehensive examination of the doctrine by Thomas McCall. Beginning with Scripture, McCall takes into account the varying approaches within the great central tradition of the church, not only on sin as action but also the knotty problems of original sin and fallenness, and helps us to wrestle with the issues in the light of the gospel. This is a tour de force.”
Thomas A. Noble, Professor of Theology, Nazarene Theological Seminary; Senior Research Fellow, Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, United Kingdom
“McCall has given us a work for which to give thanks. His study of the oft-overlooked topic of sin is both intensive and extensive. Reaching from a thorough examination of sin in the Bible, through the contributions of systematics, to the implications of modern science, he has explored the dimensions of this foundational topic with great erudition, but also with sensitivity and restraint. He expounds the various positions in such thorny topics as original sin in depth and with clear insight. He treats all positions fairly and sympathetically and offers measured conclusions. All who want to become informed on this topic will need to turn to this book.”
John Oswalt, author, Called to Be Holy and The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah
“In an age when speaking of sin has become unfashionable and even evangelical churches shy away from corporate practices of confession in their liturgies, McCall offers a much-needed, comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of sin. Firmly grounded in Scripture but also drawing on the breadth and depth of the theological tradition from the Patristics to today, he weaves together a rich and varied tapestry of thought on the topic. Throughout he offers measured, fair evaluation of competing viewpoints, pointing out the biblical and theological strengths and weaknesses and defending his own position in a clear, scholarly way. This book is an excellent contribution to the literature on sin.”
Mary L. Vanden Berg, Professor of Systematic Theology, Calvin Theological Seminary
“McCall boldly takes on the challenge of explicating and defending the unfashionable doctrine of sin, armed with a command of the rich resources of biblical, systematic, and historical theology, as well as the virtue of analytic clarity of argument. The result is a robust, fair, and illuminating treatment of this dark and difficult doctrine that will be a valuable resource for Christians of all traditions.”
Jerry L. Walls, Scholar in Residence and Professor of Philosophy, Houston Baptist University