A Question Regarding Human Nature
A member of the congregation asks: “Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we’re sinners?”
This is a question that came up during our adult Sunday school Bible study through the Book of Romans. It was prompted by what Paul says in Romans 6:22
Romans 6:22 (NKJV) But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.
Before answering this question, let’s consider what conclusion can be drawn by assuming the truth of the premise. For example, if we say “we’re sinners because we sin,” what conclusion can we draw from this? It says two things. First, it says that we choose to be sinners. The very act of sinning makes us sinners, and this is an act we choose. Second, it says that we can choose not to sin, and therefore we won’t be sinners.
This point of view is actually an ancient heresy called Pelagianism named after the British monk Pelagius (360-418 AD). Pelagius taught an extreme view of free will that believed man is able to freely choose to obey God and achieve a perfection of sorts. He also denied the doctrine of original sin. Pelagius was confronted by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the great theologian and doctor of the church. Augustine believed that the will of man is in bondage to sin and is unable to freely choose to do the good without the assistance of divine grace.
Augustine once prayed “O Lord, command what you will, and give me what You command.” In other words, give me the strength and grace to obey your commands. Pelagius was offended by this prayer. He believed that it would be cruel of God to command something we were constitutionally incapable of carrying out. Pelagius and his teachings were condemned as heresy at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD).
So if “we’re sinners because we sin” is wrong, then by default “we sin because we’re sinners” must be correct and Biblical. That is in fact true. The Bible uses two metaphors to describe our natural state. Paul in Romans 6:17 says we’re slaves of sin:
Romans 6:17 (NKJV) But God be thanked that [though] you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.
Next in Ephesians 2:1, Paul says we’re dead in sins and trespasses:
Ephesians 2:1 (NKJV) And you [He made alive,] who were dead in trespasses and sins.
These are two very strong metaphors to describe the state in which every human being is born. A dead man has no life, no activity. A slave lacks any free agency in life, but must obey his master.
Theologically, the state into which we’re born is called original sin. The confessional standards of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) speak about original sin. In Belgic Confession article 15, we read in part:
We believe that through the disobedience of Adam original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and a hereditary disease, where with even infants in their mother’s womb are infected, and which produces in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof, and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.
In a nutshell, we sin because we’re sinners. But the good news is that in Christ the power of sin has been broken in our lives. That is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 6. Through our union with Christ, the power of sin has been broken, it’s dominion over us has been ended. We have died to sin just as Christ has died to sin, and just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we too have been raised to newness of life (Romans 6:4).
So when a Christian sins, it is not because he is a sinner. The Christian, at his/her core, is no longer a sinner. By that I mean the Christian is no longer defined as one who is “dead in sins and trespasses” or as a “slave to sin.” We’ve been “made alive in Christ,” we’ve been “set free from sin.” To be sure the Christian still struggles with the presence of sin (Paul’s argument in Romans 7:7-25), but the power of sin, is shattered. So when a Christian sins, it’s not because he/she is a sinner, but because he/she gives in to the sin principle (what Paul calls “the flesh” in Romans 7). The solution to ongoing sin in the life of a believer is found in Romans 8, when Paul says:
Romans 8:1-4 (NKJV) 1 [There is] therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God [did] by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.