To Sin or Not to Sin


Dennis Priebe

In January and February of 1990 readers of the Adventist Review were asked to consider again the subject of the human nature of Jesus Christ. In a six-part series entitled “Model or Substitute,” Norman Gulley asked the question, “Does it matter how we see Jesus?” In concluding the first article in his series, Gulley stated, “Jesus is to Seventh-day Adventist fundamental beliefs what the hub is to spokes in a wheel. You can perhaps get by with a bent spoke or two, but when the hub is off-center, the wheel is in jeopardy. That is our doctrinal predicament today in the church.” (AR, Jan. 18, 1990) How well stated. A faulty understanding of who Jesus is and what He accomplished will skew one’s understanding of righteousness by faith, the gospel, and the very mission of the church. We must indeed exert every effort to be sure that the hub of our faith is not off-center. When we are dealing with the heart of our reason for being Christians, we dare not evade the issues or ignore potentially controversial ideas.

The Issue Is Sin

Although the series was designed to consider the evidence regarding the human nature of Christ, such evidence is not really the determining factor in our conclusions regarding the nature of Christ. The real issue is the evidence regarding the nature of sin. Whatever conclusion is reached regarding what sin is will determine our conclusions on the nature of Christ. Gulley recognized this point when he said that the two conflicting views on the nature of Christ “spring from two differing understandings of what constitutes sin.” (AR Jan. 25, 1990)

We must not underestimate the importance of this issue. Our conclusion regarding what constitutes sin will affect not only the nature of Christ, but what justification and sanctification are designed to accomplish and whether or not perfection of character and sinless living are legitimate possibilities or fanatical fantasies. Richard Taylor recognized this point many years ago in his book, A Right Conception of Sin. “The question of sin is so basically related to the nature of God and the plan of redemption, it is the one doctrine by which all others can be reduced to their simplest significance. Furthermore, it forms the surest and most logical measuring stick by which the accuracy of those doctrines can be detected. The doc?trines relating to sin form the center around which we build our entire theological system... Many, perhaps most, of the errors which have protruded themselves into Christian theology can be finally traced to a faulty conception of sin. Because someone’s notions of sin were a bit off color, his entire trend of reasoning was misdirected... To reason from a false premise is to start an endless chain of false conclusions. Therefore we say that one who does not have correct views of sin is not apt to have correct views of any other fundamental question. This will especially be manifest in regard to his theory of the atonement and God’s method of redeeming man.... And to insist on correct views of sin is to make it impossible to stray very far from essential truth.” (Beacon Hill Press, 1945, pp. 9-11)

Sin or Effects of Sin

One of the reasons that this subject has seemed so confusing is because of a lack of simple definitions. Nothing seems to be said about the difference between the effects of sin and sin itself. Adam’s sin has had many effects on this planet. Death reigns in the human, animal, and plant kingdoms, suffering and pain fill our days, nature reveals the dominance of tooth and claw, and the earth itself is full of the violence and tragedy of sin’s curse. Although the effects of sin are far-reaching and ultimately lethal, no one ascribes personal guilt or condemnation to the effects of sin. No plant, animal, or human is guilty because of being caught in the deadly effects of sin.

On the other hand, the concept of sin is associated with guilt, condemnation, separation from God, judgment, and the second death. Our focus, as we discuss righteousness by faith or the nature of Christ, must be on sin itself rather than the effects of sin. Ultimately, God will remove all the effects of sin from His universe, but our focus in studying the Biblical gospel must be to understand what sin is, and how it can be forgiven and cleansed right now. In the current debate, the issue is man’s fallen nature. Is fallen nature part of sin itself, or one of the effects of sin? Our conclusions regarding the nature of Christ will be determined by the answer we give to this simple question.

Original Sin

We are indebted to Dr. Gulley for stating his position clearly and succinctly. After listing the three major definitions of sin as act, relationship, and nature, he asks, “Is it possible that sin includes all three definitions? Might sinfulness (nature, broken relationship) and sins (acts) be considered as cause and effect?” (AR, Jan. 25, 1990) In other words, the sin of having a fallen nature is the primary sin, which leads inevitably to the secondary sin of breaking the law.

Gulley further explains that this is the Augustinian view of sin. In this view, a person is a sinner by nature at birth, already under condemnation by God, therefore he commits acts of sin inevitably, for which he receives added condemnation. Perhaps the most precise explanation of this view of sin was given centuries ago by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. “All are originally depraved....Guilt is from nature....Even infants bringing their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb suffer... for their own defect....Men are born vicious....We are all sinners by nature.” (Book II, ch. 1, #5,6,7,8,9,10,27)

One who believes that this is the correct position must also believe that sin is continuous from birth to the grave. Since we are born with fallen natures, and keep them after the new birth, our primary sin is constantly a part of our lives, even though we may choose not to commit various acts of sin. Thus from birth to death we are constantly sinning, and we must have continuous forgiveness for our continuous guilt.

This understanding of sin, which Gulley admits was not part of early Adventist theology, presents several problems. How does an infant receive personal forgiveness for its personal guilt, when there is no consciousness either of guilt or forgiveness? Who chooses for the baby? After we rise from the waters of baptism, we are just as much sinners as we were before the new birth, because our primary sin of nature has not been removed by conversion. After the close of probation, when the censer of forgiving grace has been cast down, we are still sinning by nature. Even though we may choose to die rather than sin in act, we are still just as guilty of the primary sin of nature as we were when in open rebellion against God, and we need continuous forgiveness of that sin as much as ever. How is this forgiving grace supplied when the work of mercy for sinners has closed, and all must stand in God’s sight without a Mediator, with no ongoing intercession for our sins? (EW 48,71; GC 614; SR 403) Obviously there is no possibility of sinless living as long as we keep these fallen, sinning natures, despite the inspired testimony that we can “live lives of sinlessness.” (RH, April 1, 1902; II-IP 146) The Augustinian view of sin may have a rich tradition in Christian history, but it is impossible to blend this view with the Adventist understanding of the great controversy.

Romans 5

The primary Scripture evidence Gulley provides for his thesis is the comparison between Adam and the human race in Romans 5. Based on this comparison, he states, “This state of sin, or sinful nature, is itself in need of salvation long before the first conscious act of sin....Those wanting to confine sin and death to personal sinning apparently overlook this comparison.” (AR, Jan. 25, 1990) This is a strange conclusion, since a straightforward reading of the text leads to exactly the opposite conclusion.

The clearest summary of the entire chapter is verse 18. “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Gulley insists that we understand the parallelism in this passage. In fact, he has overlooked the most obvious parallel. Because of Adam’s sin all men were truly condemned. Because of his rebellion, Adam was subject to immediate annihilation (the second death), and the entire human race was thereby subject to the same condemnation and annihilation. But the second half of the verse tells us that Christ reversed that penalty for the same all men condemned by Adam. In other words, the corporate condemnation brought by Adam is cancelled by the corporate justification brought by Christ. Because of His atoning death, all men have been freed from Adam’s condemnation.

Inspiration tells us that Christ’s death “restored the whole race of men to favor with God.” (1SM 343) E. J. Waggoner commented on this verse nearly a hundred years ago. “As the condemnation came upon all, so the justification comes upon all...the free gift comes upon all.” (ST, March 12, 1896)

This straightforward understanding of Romans 5 completely destroys the false concept of original sin which has misled Christians for most of the Christian centuries. This chapter says absolutely nothing about being sinners by nature. In fact, it says that we have been freed from whatever condemnation Adam brought into the world. Because Christ is the true head of the race, although we are born with all the effects of sin in and upon us, we are not born either guilty or condemned.

Gulley believes that the clearest support for original sin in the Old Testament is found in Ps. 51:5. Once again, the text says nothing about being sinners by nature. To be “shapen in iniquity,” and conceived “in sin’ tells us only about the effects of Adam’s sin upon the race. It says nothing about what constitutes sin and personal guilt. Because of Adam’s sin we are all born in a sinful environment with a sinful nature, but we must have much clearer evidence to prove that sinful nature constitutes sin.

One of Gulley’s most misleading arguments goes like this: “If a baby dies a few hours or days after birth, it is still subject to the second death-the condemnation death-even though it has never broken any commandment. If this were not so, then babies who died would not need a Saviour.” (AR, Jan. 25, 1990) Romans 5 completely destroys his premise that a baby is subject to the second death. To say that all babies need a Saviour has become one of the most misleading clich's in current thinking on righteousness by faith. Because of the atonement, the entire race has been freed from automatic condemnation because of Adam’s sin. Now, we have to live with the ongoing effects of sin until they are finally removed by the recreative aspect of the atonement at the second coming and the end of the millennium. All of this has indeed been accomplished by the atonement provided through Christ. But the common understanding of “needing a Saviour” carries with it implications of personal forgiveness from personal guilt. Yes, a baby needs a Saviour, a suffering planet needs a Saviour, blind men and lame men need a Saviour, but not in the sense of personal forgiveness for personal sin and guilt. Once again, we are confusing the effects of sin and sin itself.

Fallen Nature and Sin

As stated earlier in this article, the key issue is whether fallen nature is one of the effects of sin or is sin itself. Let us ask this question in light of some of the clearest texts in the Bible on the subject of sin. 1 John 3:4 tells us that “sin is the transgression of the law,” and it ties this to “whosoever committeth sin.” The entire context deals with our choice to sin or not to sin. Nothing is said or implied about an ongoing inevitable state of sin preceding our actual transgression of the law.

Eight different times Ellen White says something very similar to the following statement. “The only definition for sin that we have in the Bible is that it is the transgression of the law.” (ST, Mar. 3, 1890; 1SM 320; 7BC 951; GC 493, etc.) If 1 John 3:4 is really the clearest Biblical definition of sin available to us, then why are we searching so desperately for more obscure passages needing a healthy dose of reinterpretation to support a different definition of sin? Is it because we have accepted an unbiblical definition for sin from major thinkers such as Augustine, and now we are trying to justify this unsound belief from unclear texts which have nothing to do with defining sin? Is not this similar to the practice of some who try to support the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness from scattered texts which must be forced by reinterpretation to say what they do not really mean?

Romans 14:23 says that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Once again the context speaks of doubt and faith, both clearly within the domain of conscious decision-making. James 4:17 tells us that “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Here sin is restricted to knowledge and choice. The clearest texts describing sin say nothing of fallen nature being an inevitable, ongoing state of sin which overrides our choice to sin or not to sin. To say that sin is nature is to say that we are sinning even when we are choosing not to sin. Could it be that this understanding of sin as something inevitable and ongoing has greatly dulled our sensitivity to real sin (transgression of God’s law) so that now we have come to accept specific transgressions as simply expressions of the greater sin of having a fallen nature? In other words, we have come to accept sinning as a normal part of life and even Christian life.

Some want to define sin as a broken relationship or separation from God. Isa. 59:2 describes the relationship between sin and separation. “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God.” It is sin that separates us from God, that breaks our relationship with Him, rather than the other way around. Ellen White tells us that when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, this “was the transgression of God’s immutable and holy law, and it separated man from God.” (SC 33) Yes, sin is indeed a state, but it follows the decision to sin against God, and it continues as long as the heart remains unrepentant. As long as we remain in a state of sin, no forgiveness is possible and we are lost. The state of sin is not an acceptable and necessary condition for the Christian, as we are currently being taught.

Those who want to prove that fallen nature is sin itself rather than an effect of sin have simply not proved their case. Being born into this world means several things. It means that we are subject to hunger and thirst, weariness and pain, suffering and death. It means that the planet we live on may try to destroy us. It means being born by sinful parents, receiving a sinful nature, and living in a sinful environment. But it does not mean being born guilty of sin or condemned because of depravity. Although we receive all of the effects of sin, including a fallen nature, we are not guilty of sin. The effects of sin must be separated from sin itself.

Because we are born with fallen natures in a fallen world, we are naturally predisposed to commit acts of sin. The act of sin occurs, not when the deed is done, but when the decision is made by the mind to harbor thoughts or motivations which are contrary to God’s will. The decision to sin, unless repented of, leads inevitably to a state of sin, which is separation and estrangement from God. The state of sin leads to increasing rebellion and darkness until it is night in the soul.

Original Sin and Adventism

Near the end of his article (AR, Jan. 25, 1990) Norman Gulley quotes several statements from Ellen White to show that human nature was corrupted because of Adam’s sin, and he concludes that every man is born a sinner and separated from God. All these statements prove is that every man is born with the effects of Adam’s sin deep within his nature. The conclusion that man is a sinner by nature comes, not from the Bible or from Adventism, but straight from Babylon. Its roots reach back to Augustine in the Roman Catholic Church, and have been transmitted to mainline Protestantism through the writings of Luther and Calvin. Today evangelical Protestants champion this view of sin, and they have been quite eager to see this view become part of Adventism. It is mind-boggling to realize how successful their attempts have been. The evangelical view of sin is accepted within the highest levels of Adventist scholarship today, and has even penetrated into various levels of conference leadership. Many pastors and laymen have accepted its validity, and the result is a deepening crisis in Adventist theology.

The evangelical position on sin makes it impossible to accept the long-standing Adventist position that Christ took our very nature of sin, triumphing over sin in that dangerous nature, and pointing the way for every human being caught in sin’s deadly effects to escape by God’s forgiving and transforming grace. Adventism has long believed that Christ could be both our Substitute and our Example in this simple way. Now, because of the evangelical position on sin, we are being told that Christ could not be our Substitute if He really took our fallen nature from birth. Instead of a simple and straightforward gospel, we are now forced to devise rather complicated devices to allow Christ to take part of human heredity while being exempted from certain hereditary traits.

This new-to-Adventism view of sin also makes it impossible to make significant statements about the possibility of overcoming sin totally before the close of probation. Once again, clarity and simplicity have been sacrificed for the sake of compromise with non-Adventist belief systems. We are searching for theological acceptance, but is the price far too high?