Is Sin Action or Nature?

I’ve explained in my previous post that the debate about the nature of Christ in the SDA church has failed to take into account a very important factor: that Adventists don’t believe in an immaterial, rational soul.

I will here argue that the debate over the nature of sin has similarly been misguided. The question has generally been posed, is sin an action (thought, word or deed, of commission or omission), or is it our nature?

If only action (sin is the transgression of the law), why then does the Bible describe us as so much more vile than that: the whole head is sick, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, etc.? Also, in our own experience, we often come to realize that our sinfulness permeates to the very core of our being.

But if sin is nature, the Bible teaches that our corrupt natures will remain with us until Christ’s coming (when this corruptible will put on incorruption.) So why even bother to overcome sin if we’re still going to be sinners just the same? Why would God call us to be perfect as He is perfect if this isn’t even possible?

This has been the back and forth debate among Adventists for six decades now. But are we sure those are the only two options? What if there was another possibility where sin was more than just action but not exactly nature?

Imagine for a second that a serial thief is caught and thrown in jail where he doesn’t steal a single thing for years, because he can’t. Does his lack of stealing make him any less a thief? Or if a rapist is released from jail for good behavior, would you let him babysit your daughter?

This is not to imply that people cannot change. But people don’t stop BEING thieves or rapists or liars or cheaters simply because they stop DOING those things. And, if God is to be a fair judge, He must judge people on WHO they are and not just on what they DO.

So sin is not just our actions, and neither is it the nature we are born with, but it is our cultivated characters, who we really are. From the time we are born, we start developing character. And, decades later, when we are converted, this character is very well formed and a constant battle for our renewed minds. Our thoughts, words and actions are like the tip of the iceberg above the water while our characters are the massive ice structure underneath. This does not mean however that God cannot change them.

Take Peter as a case study. He was fully convicted in his own mind that He would never betray Christ. His actions corresponded with his convictions in that he was willing to die with Christ. According to an action-only definition of sin, Peter would have been blameless in this instant. But God had judged him a betrayer based on His knowledge of the heart. The good news however is that once Peter understood himself, he thoroughly repented and stopped being a betrayer.

So maybe the reason Adventists have not made any progress on this topic in sixty years is because they were debating between two options that were equally wrong.

  1. Very interesting perspective! What do you do with verses like Psalm 51:5 and 58:3, which seems to be saying that our sinfulness extends back to our moment of conception, a time which precedes our ability to make conscious decisions which develop character?

      • Sure, but I would have thought that tota scriptura meant that we tried to build theology on the entire bible. This means that we cannot ignore verses as we choose

        • Not exactly. Tota Scriptura means that we do theology from the bottom up rather than the top down. The tendency is for people to zero in on some passages, come to some conclusion about what the passages are saying, and then come up with the underlying philosophical foundation that logically connects those passages. Instead, Tota Scriptura/Sola Scriptura means that we use the entire scripture, and only the scripture, to derive the foundational elements of our theology (issues like what God is like, what reality is like, what humanity is, what God is trying to accomplish and what He expects from us). The reason is that whatever ‘big picture’ we bring to the Scripture becomes the hermeneutical lens that affects how we understand everything else. And it is impossible not to read Scripture through a hermeneutical lens, so if we don’t get our lens from Scripture we are getting it somewhere less trustworthy.

          So in this post I am saying that the orthodox understanding of the nature of man affects how most Christians understand sin. If we instead adopt a Biblical view of the nature of man (as a holistic rather than a dualistic being), our understanding of sin must change as well. And this becomes a more Biblical understanding even if we don’t reconcile every passage.

          As far as the two texts you mentioned, I would say that in fact we begin developing character even before we are born, as soon as our nervous system is sufficiently developed. So in that sense, it could still be said that we are born sinners.

          The text that says we are ‘conceived’ in sin, could have several explanations. It could be a language issue; maybe conceived isn’t the best translation. It could be a semantics issue; maybe to the ancient mind, ‘conceived’ could have meant something very different than the egg+sperm instance we understand it to be today. It could be a general statement; as in, he was conceived in a world of sin. Or, it could just be a poetic hyperbole, given that this is a Psalm. There are probably even better explanations; I personally don’t have the patience to chase them down since I rather focus on the more consequential issues.

          Hope that helps.

  2. I really like your thoughts and perspective. I’ve always thought of “sin” as a word that has several definitions – as many words do. I would probably use what you describe as my primary definition, but the other two perspectives that you mention might just be thought of as secondary definitions for the same word. (“I Used To Be Perfect” by George Knight shares that kind of idea.)

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