People sometimes ask us to explain what the Bible means when it speaks of sin. When they ask about the nature of sin and God's purpose with us, they are asking about a truly cosmic subject. In this short paper we'll discuss the biblical teaching of sin as well as what is called the atonement and spiritual regeneration, because all three are part of the story of God's purpose for us.
Different views exist regarding what sin is. People sometimes zero in on specific acts of evil as though they alone define sin. Some people even make up their own view of what is "sinful." Some think, for example, that dancing is a sin, or that Christians should not drink coffee. Some have taught that sex is sin. It used to be believed that seven deadly sins existed, and that these defined the scope of sin. Some divide sin into mortal (deliberately committed sin, and of serious consequence) and venial ("relatively slight") sin categories.
Whatever evil that human beings do is sin. Murder, stealing, hate, greed, jealousy, covetousness — to name a few human acts and attitudes — are sinful. These unholy acts and thoughts "miss the mark" of God's perfect and holy nature. (In fact, some of the Hebrew and Greek words for "sin" contain the idea of missing the bullseye, as it were.)
But sinful acts or attitudes that fall short of God's perfection are only the symptoms of the presence of true sin. Sin is an internal power that affects everyone's humanness, our human nature. In effect, sin deceives us, enters us and dominates our existence. Sin enslaves us and takes us over as drugs enslave an addict. Sin is like a deadly virus that enters our human nature and takes control of us, using us for its own purpose. Sin reproduces itself within us and destroys our self. And the evil behaviors that result are the symptoms of our inner defectiveness.
Of course, these are only ways of speaking about things we cannot see. Sin and human nature are not substances or fixed structures we can identify, mark and box up. Sin and human nature are inseparable from what we are. In fact, what happens is that our human nature itself is or becomes sin because sin corrupts the expression of our self, making human nature sinful. In short, sin is something that creates our sinful nature. It becomes our self or our ego. Paul, personifying the sinful nature or being as himself, said, "I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin" (Romans 7:14).
Of course, we can become too ethereal or "theological" when speaking about our sinful self and lose the simple meaning of what is going on. When we say we are sinful, it simply means that we have gross spiritual imperfections in relationship to God. We've missed the perfection of God and, hence, are unable to be in a relationship with God, or as we might say, are unable to remain in his presence. We are broken creatures. As a broken clay pot might be tossed away, we are fit only for the garbage heap of decay and death.
Here's is where the atonement and regeneration come in. Though we are broken spiritually, God has no intention of throwing us away. He wants us to have eternal life in his presence, to be spiritually perfect as he is perfect. To accomplish his purpose, God has to clear away the imperfections — the sinfulness — that are part of our nature. We have to be remade, refashioned, regenerated or spiritually reborn (John 3:3-7).
God has accomplished his purpose by first justifying us with himself. That is, he clears away or forgives our sins — past, present and future. God purposed to do this through the life and death of Jesus Christ, who revealed the Father and who was one of the ways in which God revealed himself. Jesus, as God in human flesh, was our perfect sacrifice for our sinful selves.
But more than forgiveness is necessary as God goes about perfecting us. We must be reborn to have the mind of God within us. This process of renewal or regeneration is accomplished by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What happens when a person is reborn by the Holy Spirit is that he or she now has, in a manner of speaking, two natures within the one self. That person has both the sinful human nature and the perfect nature of God through the Holy Spirit. These are at war with each other. The Holy Spirit works in us to produce the fruit of the Spirit, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Meanwhile the sinful nature within us attempts to rear its ugly head to produce sinful acts or attitudes (verses 19-21).
The apostle Paul describes in several places how these two natures are in conflict with each other (Galatians 5:16-17; Romans 7:7-25). This conflict or war takes place within our minds and hearts and, therefore, personally involves us. That is why converted Christians have to "strive against" sin. There is a spiritual war going on in our minds as long as we are in human flesh.
There is no contradiction between the forgiveness we have in Christ and the spiritual war that rages within us after conversion. The process of conversion throws us into the fray, so to speak, allowing us to strive against sin through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit provides the power to overcome, but the overcoming occurs within us, and involves our thinking and being.
In the resurrection, when God gives us spiritual bodies, we will no longer be involved in a spiritual war. We shall be filled with only the Holy Spirit, and will no longer have a sinful nature. The problems of human flesh will no longer be issues of our existence. That is why our hope is in the resurrection when, as Paul put it, this mortal flesh will be clothed with immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-54). At the consummation in God's kingdom, there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things" — including our human nature and sinfulness — "has passed away" (Revelation 21:4).