This article gives a quick summary of the Bible’s teaching concerning sin and grace. Originally published as “Synd och nåd” in Biblicum Volume 80 Number 1, 2016. Biblicum, Hantverkaregatan 8 B, SE-341 Ljungby, www.biblicum.se . All Bible citations from: The Holy Bible, Evangelical Heritage Version®, EHV®, © 2019 Wartburg Project, Inc. Translated to English by Julius Buelow.
Sin and Grace
What is meant by “sin”?
The Bible’s definition of sin is a crime against the law. 1 John 3:4 says, “sin is lawlessness.” No thought, word, desire, or action is sin in itself; it becomes sin when it goes against God’s law. Sin occurs when a particular action, a particular type of human conduct or relationship is not what God wants it to be.
What is the cause of sin?
God is not the cause of or reason for sin. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ because God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one,” writes James (1:13).
- The outer, or external, cause of sin is the Devil. Created as a good and holy spirit in God’s service (angel), the Devil was not tempted or led astray by anyone else; the first thought of sin and rebellion against God originated from himself. “The Devil has been sinning from the beginning,” writes John (1 John 3:8).
- The inner, or internal, cause of sin is the human heart. Sin is not like the dust from a path that covers your body, that is, just an outward contamination. Every sin which a human commits has its beginning in his own heart. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and blasphemies. These are the things that defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a person (Matt 15:19-20).
What are the consequences of sin?
Every crime against God’s law involves guilt which earns a punishment, in this case, death. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes (Rom 6:23). Death means separation of three different kinds: spiritual, physical, and eternal.
- Spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God. When Adam and Eve sinned, their hearts were separated from God. They lost all true love for God and trust in him. Instead of a natural trust they became afraid of God and fled from him. They became spiritually dead. This is now the situation for all human beings by nature. The default situation for all humans, before faith is kindled, is spiritual death, which Paul emphasizes in Ephesians 2.
- Physical death is the separation of the body from the soul.
- Eternal death is a human’s eternal separation from blessedness with God.
What is meant by inherited, or original, sin?
Before sin entered the world, humanity’s spiritual relationship with God was perfect. The man and the woman were created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). “The image of God” means, according to Paul, having a right knowledge of and a right relationship with God (to be completely righteous and holy, cf. Col 3:10 and Eph 4:24).
Through the fall into sin, humanity’s holy relationship with God was ruined. The innermost essence of sin is unbelief (John 16:9), that is, sin consists in humanity surrendering the paradise of a relationship with God and instead prioritizing its own selfish life. This corruption of sin is inherited by all people. Inherited sin includes the inheritance of both sinful corruption and the guilt of sin. Paul writes, “Sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, so also death spread to all people because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). According to the Bible, all sin has its root in humanity’s distorted relationship with God.
What is meant by actual sin?
Actual sin, in contrast with inherited sin, consists of a certain activity on the part of a human. Paul calls it “the works of the sinful flesh” and gives the following example: “The works of the sinful flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, complete lack of restraint, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, discord, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things similar to these” (Gal 5:19-21). Everything that a person does, says, thinks, feels or desires in contrast to God’s law is actual sin.
What is meant by grace?
Grace is God’s undeserved goodness toward and love for humans. All people need grace. The gospel is that God in his great grace offers to all people the forgiveness of sins, eternal life and blessedness on the basis of Christ’s vicarious atonement. To ask for grace means to ask for pardon for Christ’s sake. God acquits or declares the sinner not guilty thanks solely to what Christ has earned. God’s pardon excludes the possibility that people have earned anything.
God’s grace is universal, that is, it extends over all people. “God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Just as Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), so God’s grace in Christ extends to all people.
The proclamation of and the offer of God’s grace in the gospel has an inherent power to touch people’s hearts and lead them to receive the offered pardon (Rom 1:16). Faith is, at its core, the trust and reliance of the heart. It can only be created by the gospel about God’s grace in Christ. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through the word of Christ,” Paul writes (Rom 10:17). Faith is the heart’s response to God’s gracious offer in the gospel.
People can not by their own strength turn themselves to Christ and convert themselves. Before faith is kindled in the heart, people are spiritually dead (John 5:24-25, Eph 2:5). Just as little as a dead body is able to raise itself up, so little is a spiritually dead person able to raise himself to spiritual life. Paul expresses this clearly:
3Formerly, we all lived among them in the passions of our sinful flesh, as we carried out the desires of the sinful flesh and its thoughts. Like all the others, we were by nature objects of God’s wrath.
4But God, because he is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses. It is by grace you have been saved! 6He also raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. 7He did this so that, in the coming ages, he might demonstrate the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8Indeed, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9not by works, so that no one can boast.
10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance so that we would walk in them (Eph 2:3-10).”