Sin is one of those things that we can easily recognize it when it happens, especially when we are the ones being offended. Finding a definition for sin is somewhat of a more difficult process. From our own free will we have all made the decision to rebel against a perfect God and this rebellion against God even if we are convinced we are doing good is still sin. It is this rejection and rebellion against the true and living God that is sin. Early on in the history of the Church the Church had to confront and reject those who were in error who claimed that we had no choice but to sin out of necessity and that sin was eternal, but had to affirm the Biblical position that sin was done by we who by our own free will had chosen to reject the standards of God.
One of these early heresies was that of Pelagius. Pelagian doctrine held that whatever we were required to do by God then we had to be able to do it. If we were not capable of doing it then it couldn’t be counted against us as sin. Many in the Church today still hold to this Pelagian heresy without ever being really confronted about it. Yet we can all understand from the teaching of the Bible that we are all held to a standard that is beyond our ability to be able to reach when we are called to be perfect as God is perfect in heaven. We do not have the plenary ability to reach this standard as Pelagius taught we must have in order to be held accountable to that standard. Hence Augustine rightly concluded that all of us who are saved are saved through the grace of God and not through our ability to reach that standard in opposition to Pelagius. It is by the grace of God that we are saved. The truth is that we are saved through the pleasure of God through the sacrifice of His Son and not through anything that we have done, including the foresight of God into good works that we would one day do.
In the wake of Augustine there was a clarification in the church against the heresy of Pelagius in the extreme position; however, there was still dispute about a less extreme form of the theory of Pelagius which taught that God would only hold us accountable for not doing what was in our capability of doing. The Semi-Pelagian heresy taught that man’s will for seeking God was required before God would step in and save the sinner for what the sinner could not do for himself. Why else would we do good works? This was the objection of the monks in the wake of Augustine. Why would we go to such extremes of serving God unless we were earning something from God? But the Church had to submit to the authority of the Bible and recognize that man was dead in his sins and that it took the grace of God to resurrect spiritual life in the sinner for a dead man can do nothing for himself to earn life.
Following the Reformation, Protestant churches have recognized the doctrine of sin as representing specific wrongs in relation to the law of God. Beyond this it is recognized that sin does not always have a relation to what can be confined to things that we are willfully committing but that can be extended to our basic rebellious nature against God. Moreover, we recognize from the authority of the Bible that no merit can be earned from God for the good works that we do but that all of the sin that we commit must be punished by God. This sin can either be punished by God on the cross or it can be received by the individual in Hell.
As Christians we are bound by the Royal Law of God which demands that we love Him with all our soul, mind, and strength and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. Anything less than this at any point can be used to help us come to an understanding of the extent of what is sin. From this we can understand that nothing less than absolute perfection is the standard. From this we can understand that nothing except perfect intimacy with God is expected of us. Anything short of that perfect and divine holiness of God is sin in the human life. Yet it is Christ who takes the place of sin in the life of the believer. On the cross Christ takes the punishment for sin that we could never in all eternity repay for any one transgression. It is Christ who takes on the legal punishment that was due to us. And it is Christ who takes that legal responsibility for all of our sin throughout all of our lives as the effects of the sinful nature are not completely replaced in the process of sanctification in the life of the believer. And this human nature can be traced back to Adam because just as what was promised to Abraham reached its fulfillment in the generation of the Christians, so can the effect of sin be felt in all of the generations of men to this day and will be felt by all of the generations of men until the return of the King. It is from our relation to Adam that we receive death, and it is because of our intimate connection with Christ that we who are saved will receive eternal life.
The extent of the effects of sin can be understood to corrupt the entire person. Reason and intellect is just as much effected by the corruption of sin as can be understood to be true about the physical effects of sin on the world and on our bodies of flesh. Indeed, we who are saved can still be understood to be bound by sin as all humans are. Charles Hodge rightly observed that the attitude of sinful man toward Christ is the “great ground of their condemnation” and a great proof that the intellect has fallen with the rest of man. The state of man today can be clearly understood to be nothing short of that total apostasy from God. We all suffer from a loss of any true holiness apart from the gift of God in Christ. From a natural perspective we all can see what happens when the parents are corrupted by a physical illness such as AIDS when it is passed on to the kids who are born from HIV+ mothers. In the same way on a spiritual level when we are born from morally corrupt parents as all humans are, we are born into this spiritually corrupted state of rebellion against God. Within the human body it should be properly understood that the sin of the human is not limited to the heart or our mind, and that sin is not limited to the body of flesh but that the corruption of sin can be rightly understood to effect the whole of the man both body and soul.
The great prevalence of sin in the world has become one of the cornerstones of the movements of the world which reject the truth of the absolute power and the absolute goodness of the true and living God. We understand that God will deal with this situation completely and justly from what God has revealed about the future. We do not understand why God is so merciful as to allow us to continue in our sin. It is clear that God is just and that He will punish all of the evil in His perfect justice. And we can understand from God’s toleration of sin so that we might have a period to come to repentance and faith in His name to be one of the greatest mysteries of all that God would be so merciful to us who do not deserve neither His mercy nor His grace. Personally, I find it to be one of the greatest tragic ironies of all time that those who object the most to the Christian God complain that God is so tolerant of those who sin when it is those who hate God who need God to tolerate their sin the most. But why God seems to tarry in His judgment of sin in mercy towards us we do not understand because our hearts cry out for God to hurry in His judgment of sin even though we are such in desperate need for His mercy to be prolonged that more may come to faith in Christ. Men have further complained that the doctrine makes God the author of sin. Yet we understand that God is not the author of anything that is evil. Or that the Free Will of man is destroyed by the doctrine of God’s grace. But the truth is that the free will of man is preserved in conjunction with God’s predestination of man in mystery.
Human beings are capable of morality, but morality should not be equated with the holiness of God. Morality should not be confused with religion, and morality should never be confused with being the true religion from God. True religion will at time take on the appearance of morality and will at times take on the appearance of immorality in the understanding of those who know not God or are simply confusing the standards of the world with the standards of God. True religion comes from nothing less than the revelation of God. People should not, however, think that because we can do nothing for our salvation that we should therefore do nothing. The Farmer may have no control over the providence of God to determine the outcome of his crop, but the farmer should still work his land. The Christian may have no control over the outcome, but should still do the work that God requires. In the end we can find that what Christ said was true. We cannot be saved without the truth of the Gospel, and if we do not seek we will fail to find the truth of the Gospel which will set us free from our sin, and if we do not ask God for the forgiveness of sin offered through Christ then we will certainly not receive that forgiveness which was offered by Christ.