Before we begin our study of the Bible, we have to lay out some basic issues which will guide all of the studies to come. The pivotal issue in any study of the gospel is the simple question, What Is Sin?
It is sin which has caused us to be lost, and the gospel is the good news of how God saves us from sin.
Now most of us have assumed that we know what sin is, but as is typically true for most things that we assume without examining them carefully, our assumptions may simply be unproved suppositions that need careful rethinking.
Right at this point, we are a little like a patient who makes an appointment with a physician. The most important thing the doctor can do for that patient is to give him or her a correct diagnosis of what is wrong. If the diagnosis is wrong the prescribed remedy will not work, and may even make things worse. But if the diagnosis is correct, then the remedy has a good chance of succeeding.
It is exactly the same in our study of salvation. If the diagnosis of sin is correct, then the gospel remedy for sin will solve the problem, and we can have full assurance of salvation. On the other hand, if our definition of sin is unbiblical and based on misinformation, then our gospel is likely to be just as unbiblical and based on centuries of Christian tradition instead of the Word of God.
The crucial question is, What is the nature of sin for which man is considered guilty, so guilty that he must die in the fires of hell unless he is rescued by the grace of God? We must be precise in defining the nature of this sin, so that we will know just what it is that the gospel rescues us from. Of what must we be forgiven? What must be healed for us to escape eternal death?
But the real question is, How did we all sin? What caused us to come short of the glory of God? The answer we give to this question will affect every other decision we make about the way of salvation.
We know that Adam chose sin voluntarily. We know that he became guilty because of his choice. But what about us? Are we guilty because of Adam's sin; because we were born as descendants of Adam? Are we guilty because we have inherited a fallen nature from him? Or are we guilty because we choose to repeat Adam's sin?
To this question, two basic answers have been given in Christian history. These will be classified as Definition A and Definition B.
Definition A -- Our condemnation before God is the result of something called "original sin." Now original sin does not mean Adam's choice to sin. It means the state in which we are born because of Adam's sin. Because of Adam's sin, we are born sinners. Some say that we are guilty or condemned because we have inherited sin from Adam. Some say we are guilty or condemned because we are born as sons and daughters of Adam, who was the head of the race. Some say that we are guilty or condemned because we are born into a separated state. We are born apart from God, and that separation is our guilt. Some say that we are not even guilty for any of these things, but that we are born condemned as part of a fallen race.
But the common denominator in all of these views is that we are guilty or condemned because we are born into the human family. Our condemnation is based on our birth into a fallen world with a fallen nature. We are born lost because of our inheritance of a fallen nature. Even though we may choose to do many wrongs things in our lives, we are lost sinners primarily because of our birth, before any choices take place. Sin exists in us before choice or even before knowledge. Sin exists in us before we can understand anything about right and wrong. Sin resides within us because of our birth into a fallen race.
Thought question: What is the accepted solution for this problem?
This definition of sin is the reason that some Christians believe in the necessity of infant baptism. If we are lost because of our fallen nature, at birth, it is extremely important that we be baptized immediately to wash our sin away.
Definition B -- This definition says that when Adam sinned, something changed in Adam's nature, which changed his nature from a perfect, obedient nature to a distorted, self-oriented nature. We all inherit this fallen nature from Adam, which means that it is more natural to do wrong than right. The one difference in this definition from the previous definition of sin is that we do not inherit guilt or condemnation. We inherit everything that Adam could pass on to his children, but we are not born condemned sinners. We become sinners before God, lost and condemned, when we personally choose to rebel against God's revealed will.
Thought question: Is infant baptism necessary in this definition?
These are the two classic definitions of sin in Christianity. Depending upon which definition we choose to believe, the issues of righteousness by faith will be colored differently. What we believe about justification, sanctification, and perfection will be different, depending upon the decision we make about the nature of sin.
Definition A comes to us with impressive credentials. It was developed very early in Christian history. From the fourth century this definition has been the accepted, orthodox belief of most Christians. This was even the accepted belief during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Inevitably this belief has become the dominant view of most churches today. But as is true with all accepted beliefs, we must ask the question, Is this belief based on Scripture or on tradition? Many teachings which have become accepted in modern Christianity are not based on Scripture but on ancient traditions. Our question must always be, What does God say?
As strange as it may seem, two different gospels are built upon these two different definitions of sin. One gospel tries to solve the problem of being born a lost sinner and living constantly in a state of sin, while another gospel deals with the problem of a rebellious will and negative choices. One gospel is concerned with the nature we inherit, while another gospel focuses on the character which God wants to develop in us.
If we want to be sure that we are believing and living the true, Biblical gospel, then we must be very careful to learn from the Bible what sin really is, and on what basis we stand as condemned sinners in the sight of God. Now we are ready to open the Bible to learn what it says to us.