Hamartiology: What Is Sin?

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Monday, January 25, 2021 0 comments

by Katie Erickson

Sin affects everything. We discussed last week that all people are sinful because of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. But what exactly is sin and how does God address it?

The theological word for the study of sin is hamartiology. It comes from the Greek word hamartia, which means sin, and of course the “-ology” means the study of. As we look at sin today, we’re engaging in hamartiology.

Where did sin come from? Early church scholar Tertullian (who lived in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD) believed that the origin of sin is in the devil. He believed Satan was discontent that God had created the whole world in God’s image, and then Satan passed that discontent to Eve who passed it to Adam, and that’s why sin and death entered into the world. The devil didn’t cause Adam and Eve to sin, but they each made that choice out of their free will.

For a more modern take on the matter, theologian Karl Rahner (who lived in the 20th century) believes that all sin is a rejection of God in every choice that we make. Each choice we make is either a “yes” or a “no” to God. Saying “yes” to God results in obedience, whereas saying “no” results in sin, rejecting God’s attempt to communicate Himself to us and for us to live that out.

The 18th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that sin is not necessarily an essential characteristic of being human, even though it is inevitable that everyone will sin. This implies that sin is not “original” to us but rather something we will all do. Personally, I believe that the Bible supports the concept of original sin, so I don’t agree with Kierkegaard on this matter.

However you believe that sin came into the world, there are three types of sin that we can commit: personal, social, individual, and corporate. Personal sin is what separates us from God as individuals and from His image we were created in, while social sin separates us from others around us. Corporate sin separates an entire community from God, based on the sins of the individuals and how the community as a whole views their relationship with God.

The Old Testament prophets primarily explain corporate sin for the nation of Israel. Many examples of this exist throughout the books of the prophets, and basically the entire book of Judges, but you can find a few examples in Jeremiah 18:7-8 and Ezekiel 18:30. Any group of people is made up of individuals who make individual choices, so the individuals in that group must repent of their sins in order for the group to repent.

Jesus tells us that sin is both personal and social, separating us both from God and in our relationships with one another. “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gives us instructions on how to deal with sin with our fellow believers in the Church. In Mark 9:43-48, Jesus warns about how serious the consequences of sin are: the consequence for sin is eternal separation from God in hell.

The Apostle Paul builds on Jesus’ teachings on sin, and he emphasizes that death is the consequence of sinning against God. Paul’s viewpoint is that sin is primarily individual (see Romans 7:14-20), but there is still a corporate aspect to it (Romans 5:12). Throughout Romans, Paul writes on the struggle that we as humans have with sin, and the constant battle we have between choosing God and choosing what our sinful flesh wants to do.

All this sounds pretty depressing, right? We’re all going to sin. The consequence of that sin is eternal death and punishment. But God is good, so there must be hope for us miserable humans! That’s where God’s grace comes in; that’s the other aspect of hamartiology so that we’re not left in total despair.

According to early church theologian Augustine, the nature of grace is “God’s generous and quite unmerited attention to humanity, by which this healing process may begin.” Grace is God’s presence through Christ that transforms us. It’s God’s act of rescue for humanity. We were created as good in God’s image, but we as humans made the choice to disobey God and needed His rescue and redemption. Grace is freely given to us by God, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it (see Ephesians 2:1-10).

Reformation theologian Martin Luther reflects on the nature of sin, grace, and God’s goodness: “God is so good that He would not allow evil to happen if He did not intend to make something better of it. He allowed Adam to fall, but thence arose a redemption so great that God became man and our Savior.” Our sin is an opportunity for God to show us His goodness by providing a way for us to be redeemed and still experience eternal life with Him.

Romans 6:23 sums up hamartiology very well: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We all sin and deserve death for it, but God loves us so much that through Jesus, He gives us the opportunity for eternal life if we have faith in Him.

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