What is sin? The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us that, "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." (WSC 14) Sin is the violation of God's law. Sin is doing, thinking, or intending evil. In contradiction to the message of the world that man is basically good, the Bible reveals that man is a slave to sin, a slave to evil, not basically good, but inherently evil.
We cannot understand ourselves without understanding what brought us to our current condition. Theologians call this event, the fall. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, "The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit." (WSC 15) The story appears in Genesis 3. It is well-known to us. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In the middle of the garden stood the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God commanded that they not eat of that tree on pain of death. The vice-ruler of the creatures could not eat of one tree, while being welcome to eat from all others. O. Palmer Robertson, brilliantly suggest the explanation to this curious situation. Why did God place the tree there if man could not eat of it? "One tree stands in the midst of the garden as symbolic reminder that man is not God." (Christ of the Covenants, p.83)
We know the rest of the story. The serpent tempted Eve and she ate. She gave to her husband, Adam, and he ate. Milton's fantasy notwithstanding, Adam was so complicit with his wife's sin that he had no justification to blame her. He was to blame. Through that act, sin and death entered humanity. Again, the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, "The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery."
How has the fall affected mankind? Let us work from the inside out. The fall changed the spiritual state of mankind. This appears in the first of the divine pronouncements following the confession of their sin. "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Genesis 3:15) We call this the proto-evangelium, the first announcement of the gospel, the promise that the seed of the woman, Jesus, would crush the head of the serpent, Satan. However, closer inspection reveals that this pronouncement discloses a change in position of the woman and by extension the man. Why did God need to promise to put enmity between the serpent and the woman? Because it wasn't there before. Adam and Eve, by their sin, had become allies of the serpent and enemies of God. God promises to break the alliance between His people and the serpent.
This natural alliance is the state of all mankind at birth. At birth, we are immediately allies of evil and enemies of good, servants of sin and strangers to grace, friends of Satan and hostile toward God. That is the spiritual state that Paul will call being dead in sin. (Ephesians 2:1-5) By this, Paul reveals that not only are we in that alliance, but can do nothing to change our position. We cannot on our own change and become a friend of God. We cannot break our alliance with Satan. The pronouncement of God in Genesis 3:15 hints at this truth as God promises to do what man apparently cannot. The Lord will put that enmity in His people for they cannot do it themselves. The fall made us spiritually dead, allies of Satan, enemies of God, incapable of changing our position from birth.
The fall not only changed our spiritual state, but it also affected the rest of our nature. We are mentally changed by sin. The effects of sin on our mind appear in another pronouncement by God after the fall. To the woman, God said, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." Much debate has arisen over the interpretation of this verse. One generally agreed upon fact is that this reflects a change in the relationship and mindset between the spouses. The thinking of humanity had changed in the fall, not only of the woman, but also of the man.
Humanity's capacity for thought has been corrupted by the fall. God's pronouncement concerning the frustration of work also supports this concept. (Genesis 3:17-19) Paul will speak of this as will to the church in Corinth. "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (I Corinthians 2:14) The Psalmist has much to say about folly resulting from sin. "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." (Psalm 14:1) Proverbs notes that wisdom begins by changing our spiritual state. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)
Sin corrupts our minds so that we struggle to obtain wisdom or knowledge. The information we receive is tainted by sin. We interpret revelation according to our own evil desires, persisting in our mind's preferences rather than allowing the truth to penetrate our defenses. We prefer our personal conceptions to reality. Instead of allowing God's revelation to change our minds, we use our minds to change revelation.
The most basic evidence of the effect of sin on our mental state, also called the noetic effect of the fall, appears in our sinful thoughts. "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Isaiah 5:20) We think in reverse. We think sin is good and holiness is evil. We think the rewards of sin are sweet and the rewards of obedience bitter. Is it any wonder then that our actions reflect the evil that is in our minds?
The Bible summarizes the inward effects of sin with these words. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) The heart here does not limit itself to mere emotions. In the Bible, the author uses "heart" to describe the core of a person. Here, all the inward faculties are included: mind, will, and emotions. We think the wrong things. We want the wrong things. We feel the wrong things.
Sin's effects do not stop with the inner man. They flood out into the physical aspects of life. Hear how God pronounces how sin will affect man's physicality. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (Genesis 3:19) God also includes the woman in the effect of sin on her body. "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." (Genesis 3:16)
God warned Adam that eating of the tree meant death. That physical death did not immediately occur, although the spiritual death did. Instead, the process of death began, and all the physical aspects of death began to run their course. Every misery of life comes from this fall and sin. We may not trace every injury, disease, or sickness to a single sin committed, but the evils of life all arise from sin.
It is not mere illness and death that arise from sin, but the process of aging and weakness also demonstrate the effects of sin. Man was not created to die. Man was created to live forever, and but for his sin would have. Mortality is a sin-caused condition of man. The gradual decline of age is a result of the fall. It was not so at creation.
Finally, the fall brought the effects of sin into the created order over which man ruled. The reality of this is seen in the curse God pronounces after the fall. "And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life." (Genesis 3:17) Notice in this passage that the Lord never "curses" the man or woman. He curses the serpent and the ground. The ground is cursed because of man's sin. The ground is frustrated in its fruitfulness. This condition shows up in Paul's writing again.
For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Romans 8:19-22)The violence and calamities of the planet are the fault of man. We may question the conclusions behind the doomsday scenarios of modern science, but we cannot but admit that natural disasters must be laid at the feet of sinful man.
Living Christian in an unchristian world means understanding how sin has corrupted the entire world at a profound level. Man is not merely weaken by sin, but corrupted, spiritually dead, mentally deficient, and physically broken. Nature itself suffers the frustration sin imposes upon it. The truth of man's depravity balances out perspective of man's good creation. Goodness still appears, but ordinarily in ways still reeking of sin. Living Christian in an unchristian world requires discerning the good from the evil. Only by recognizing how pervasive the evil is, can we hope to carry out our duty with wisdom.