Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – What is sin? Where did it come from? Do we inherit a sinful nature from Adam? Do we inherit guilt from Adam? 

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In his chapter on sin, Wayne Grudem provides a definition of sin, describes the origin of sin, and covers other issues related to sin from a Scriptural perspective. Instead of “original sin”, he used the term “inherited sin” to describe the same concept: our inherited guilt and nature from Adam’s original sin in the Garden of Eden. 

In another section, Grudem described actual sins in humanity. He describes the extent of sin in people, how even infants are guilty of sin, the degrees of sin, and the results of sin in our lives. He also covers the unpardonable sin and finally the just punishment for sin. 

The Definition of Sin

Sin can be defined as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” The act of sin is obvious. But sin is more than just acting in a way that violates God’s law as in “you shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Sin is also desiring to act against God’s law as in “he who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22). Moreover, having a nature that violates God’s law is also sinful as in the unbelievers “who were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Sin is present in all of these areas.

Others have promoted alternative definitions for sin. For instance, some have suggested that sin is selfishness. This definition does not work since Christ appealed to self-interest when he instructed us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). A better understanding of sin is how the Bible defines it. First John 3:4 declares, “sin is lawlessness.” Sin is breaking the law of God in thought, act, or nature.        

The Origin of Sin

The question of where sin came from can be a difficult one to answer. For one, God cannot be blamed for sin. The Scripture is clear:

  • “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25)
  • “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)
  • “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.” (Job 34:10)
  • “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13)

So God is perfect and does not sin, nor does he even tempt anyone. And yet God is in control of all things – hence the difficulty. In considering all the biblical data, God ordained that sin would come into the world though he ordained it would come about through voluntary choices of moral creatures. For God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), but he himself does nothing evil. 

Instead, sin came into the world through Satan’s rebellion (1 John 3:8). And Satan then fomented human rebellion in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1-19). In tempting our first parents, the serpent promised them they would be like God (Genesis 3:5). This lie and subsequent disobedience of Adam and Eve was the origin of sin in mankind. Their sin was rooted in autonomy: that man and woman aimed to live apart from God by their own rules.  

The Doctrine of Inherited Sin

The effects of Adam’s sin have been catastrophic. Sin has affected every person born after Adam and Eve. Paul tells us, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men[a] because all sinned—” (Romans 5:12). So Adam’s sin has transmitted the guilt of sin to every person.

Moreover, the nature of sin has been transferred to every person after Adam. Often called “original sin”, Grudem prefers the more precise “inherited sin” (or “inherited corruption”) when referring to the sinful nature we share with Adam. For instance, David said “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3). Every person has been affected by sinful disposition. It’s evident in every toddler who naturally defies his parents. Children don’t need to be taught to sin; they sin because of their inherited sinful nature.

Actual Sins in Our Lives

Because of Inherited Sin, every person is practically sinful. David said, “they have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:3). David’s son Solomon agreed when he said, “if they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin…” (1 Kings 8:46) Sin is a universal problem in humanity. 

Though every person has sinned, does that mean all sins are equal? Yes and no. Yes, all sins are equal in that each sin deserves the death penalty (Genesis 2:17). And whoever is guilty of one sin is guilty of breaking the entire law (James 2:10-11). So all sins are equal in the guilt they cause.  

However, not all sins are equal in effect. Jesus told Pilate he was greater of a lesser sin compared to the Jews who gave him over to him (John 19:11). Ezekiel saw greater and greater abominations, indicating increasing levels of sin (Ezekiel 8:6, 8:13, 8:15). Jesus taught some commandments were lesser and greater (Matthew 5:19). In multiple places, the Bible is clear some sins are worse than others.    

When a Christian Sins

Believers will sin, but our legal standing is unchanged. Paul declared, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1). Despite our sin, a genuine believer will not become an unconverted unbeliever through sin.

However, our sin will negatively affect our fellowship with God. As Paul talks about grieving “the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30), so also God is displeased with our sin. The Westminster Confession speaks of falling “under God’s fatherly displeasure” (Chapter 11, Section 5). This seems to be an accurate understanding of a Christian’s relationship to God relating to sin. 

The Unpardonable Sin

The unpardonable sin can be a cause for great concern to Christians. Jesus speaks of this sin in several places including Matthew 12:31-32:

“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Both then and now, this particular sin consists of an unusually malicious rejection and slander against the Holy Spirit’s work attesting to Christ. By attributing the Holy Spirit’s work to Satan, the original unpardonable sinners were blaspheming the Holy Spirit – which was unforgivable. In the same say, if a person willfully rejects the Holy Spirit’s attestation of Christ, we too can be guilty of the same sin. However, this sin must include a clear knowledge of who Christ is, a willful rejection of the facts of Christ despite the knowledge, and slanderously attributing the work of the Holy Spirit about Christ to Satan. 

Application: The Punishment for Sin

All sins must be paid for. The just payment of sin in a person is hell: eternal conscious punishment. However, God has paid the penalty of sin through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Romans 3:25). Those who place their faith in Jesus will not suffer the righteous punishment for sin. On the other hand, those who seek another payment for sin – or ignore the real cost of sin – will justly suffer for their sins in hell.  

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” (Psalm 51:1-4)

Special Terms

  • age of accountability
  • dualism
  • impute
  • inherited corruption
  • inherited guilt
  • inherited sin
  • mortal sin
  • original guilt
  • original pollution
  • original sin
  • Pelagius
  • propitiation
  • sin
  • total depravity
  • total inability
  • unpardonable sin
  • venial sin

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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