by Herb Douglass

We all have been enriched by participants in the last blog discussion on “Righteousness by Faithfulness.” However, it seems to me that, like ships passing in the night, we are talking right past by each other — working from different paradigms, different world views, and different word definitions.

All I can do is to be more helpful in defining where I am coming from, always hoping to be massaged by the best thoughts of others. First, what is sin? Later, what is NT faith?

Really, at the heart of all philosophy, as well as all theology since Plato, is the problem of sin. In connecting the dots in anyone’s theology, the first dot is that person’s definition of sin. Depending on “that dot,” all other theological topics or dots are directly affected or conditioned! Of course, some will say, and I agree, that the “first” dot is “freedom over against divine fiat.” In discussing sin in this blog, I am assuming all are agreed that freedom is God’s greatest gift to His created intelligences, even before love!

One of the ways we can set the table is to ask: Is sin something we are born with? Or is sin something we choose?

I surely haven’t read every scholar since Plato but I have read enough to know that we should be very careful whom we trust, past or present, in building our personal convictions. In my own lifetime, for example, I have watched and studied the two titans of the early 20th century — Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. These two Protestant thinkers embodied the tension of the centuries on this subject.

Barth was magnificent (and so noted) in his assault on “modern” theology. Brunner even more so! But Barth was emphatic, contending that every part of man’s nature is infected by the contagion of sin, that man has no capacity to reach out for divine help. Brunner fired back that freedom is the issue, that man has “addressability,” a “capacity for revelation” that enables man to apprehend and respond to the gospel. Barth responded that the Holy Spirit must create that capacity. The old struggle of freedom.

I find it much safer to listen to Jesus and Paul and other biblical writers, without feeling indebted to the stream of philosophers and theologians who have built their views on the convictions of those who preceded them, even though some used biblical verses in interesting ways to support their world view.

Jesus said on at least two occasions: “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you see, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41, NKJV). “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22, NKJV). 

James wrote: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17, NKJV). This leads me to conclude that any deviation from the known will of God, with special emphasis on “known,” is sin according to Jesus and James.

We remember the April 21, 1997 issue of U.S. News & World Report that ran a cover story featuring a little child under the story title: “Born Bad?” It summarized the growing questions that people are asking: what plays the most destructive role in determining human conduct: destiny or choice — nature or nurture?

Of course, I say both!  But that calls for definitions again. We are all born with a history imbedded in our genetic stream. Look at the blood line that Jesus was born into! Alcoholic parents often imbed the tendency to drink alcohol, fretful Moms pass on certain weaknesses to their children, etc. All that is how nature certainly affects the transmission of parental weaknesses that are deposited into their children at birth. Too much research to deny this.

Nurture is how the child accepts or corrects these inbred dispositions, tendencies and inclinations. But how? God foresaw all this and that is why He helps to level the playing field. Every child born into this world, regardless of country, has a Forever Partner — the Holy Spirit that “gives light to every man [person] coming into the world” (John 1:9, NKJV). See Romans 2:13-15 where Paul argues boldly that everyone will be judged by a fair God; those who have been blessed with a clear picture of God and His salvation and those who do not know of God’s Plan through preaching, BUT “who show the work of the law in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them,” He is describing a lot of people in this world through the centuries “who do not have the law, by nature, do the things in the law, are a law to themselves.”

God has been there from our earliest years, contending with the tricks and temptations that Satan is so good at. Sin happens when we do not resist evil in whatever form.

Seems like this is what James is saying: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1: 13-15, NIV).

Temptation is not sin. Temptation comes to the best of men and women. Always will until Jesus comes. So many people are suffocating under this cloud, thinking that their temptations, whether from without or within, is sin. Our minds are the playground where the Great Controversy is played out every day and night. We have the promise and examples that when Satan is resisted by the shared power of the Holy Spirit, he will flee (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8, 9). Yes, he will come back again and again until we and the Holy Spirit have built up enough neural pathways called habits that become as solid as when we learned to tie our shoes or to typewrite.  That’s what the Bible means by “overcoming.”

I must not leave this blog until we figure out where this notion of “original sin” fits in. Remember, the phrase is not biblical. It is a notion that comes down through Grecian philosophy and into the Christian church with gusto through Augustine, through the Catholic stream, and some of the Reformers could not shake everything off at once when they left the predominant church.

Of course there is an “original sin.” Lucifer committed it. On earth, Adam and Eve committed earth’s “original sin.” But those poor choices did not do something to the human race in such a way that sin automatically was endemic in human sperm and ova. The parental habits did! Those habits infect that genetic blood stream as the moral and physical weaknesses of parents move from one generation to the next.

We were born greatly weakened by family choices but Ezekiel (among others) teaches that, regardless of parental habits and weaknesses, the son or daughter “who sees all the sins which his father has done, and considers but does not do likewise…he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live!” (Ezekiel 18:14-17, NKJV). (The whole chapter is as relevant as today’s sunshine.)

In summary for now, sin is neither necessary nor inevitable. Sin must have one’s consent that opens the neural pathway that leads to cherishing it and then to its fulfillment. And the power of the Spirit, working with us from babyhood, is constantly nudging our conscience (as Paul calls it). The home environment, the parental examples, all this the Holy Spirit can also nourish to give the child a leg up in the Great Controversy — that no one can avoid. We are all players, not spectators.