HARMARTIOLOGY – SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE NATURE OF SIN

by Dr. Kimon Nicolaides, III

Scripture tells us anything done apart from faith is sinful in God’s sight (Hebrews 11:6; Romans 14:23). Sin is mentioned some 465 times in the Bible (NIV). It translates the Hebrew word חַטָּאת and the Greek word ἥμαρτες from which we derive the noun hamartiology. Its first explicit mentionis in Genesis 4:7, where God admonishes Cain for his resentment upon discovering his offering to be unacceptable. “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Human nature by then was already tainted by sin in the fall of Adam. According to Paul (Rom. 5:12), “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” We are all, in our humanity, sinners from the moment of our conception. Having inherited a sinful nature from our parents, we stand on that account already condemned before a perfectly holy and righteous God. We experience that condemnation in our fleshly nature resulting in our mortality, being under the dominion of death, without power to effect our own deliverance from that condition, and even being powerless to recognize its relentless grip upon and authority over us. We are in our natural condition as Paul declares to the Ephesians alienated from God and without hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12), “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Or, as he had just mentioned previously in verse 1 of that chapter, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”

Advent Christian thought generally has focused upon the anthropological consequences of sin, i.e., the meaning and condition of death, and the current state in which man finds himself, which may be expressed as having potential or conditional immortality. Sin and death, however, are so inter-related biblically that they are at times used interchangeably (e.g., Rom. 8:2; 1 Corinthians 15:56), and, as we have just seen above, the biblical term translated as death may extend to include man’s current state as well as the end to which his mortality naturally leads him. The application of a conditionalist’s perspective may serve, nonetheless, to bring clarity to our understanding of certain questions regarding the biblical nature of sin as well as the biblical understanding of death. In that perspective one application of the word “death” is that those under its curse will eventually become as if they had never been (Obadiah 16). The Bible’s semantic range of the word for “death,” however, is dependent not only upon its literary context,[1]or the various lexical nuances in which its diverse verbal forms are employed. It also depends on how we translate certain apparently idiomatic combinations of that term that may not find direct parallels in the English language.

One such idiomatic expression used in the Hebrew languages to define God’s description of the consequences that befell Adam upon transgressing the explicit boundaries stipulated within God’s creation covenant was that in the day of such transgression he would “surely die.” The exact Hebrew phrase rendered in most English translations as “will surely die” isמ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת  (mot tamut), which, were it to be translated literally, would be “to die, you will die” or “dying, you will die.”

This is not an uncommon manner of combining the infinitive absolute with the non-perfective forms of the verb in biblical Hebrew to intensify or emphasize the certainty of a command or assertion (Waltke and O’Conner 1990, 584-5).Indeed, the very same combination of terms of this same verb is used at least another half a dozen times in the Old Testament (e.g. see 1 Samuel 22:16, 1 Kings 2:37,42; 2 Kings 1:4; Ezekiel 3:18; 33:8, 14). In each case it’s English renderings of “you will surely die” or “you can be sure you will die” or “you will certainly die” have been employed by numerous versions, e.g., NKJV, NIV, NLT, ESV, HCSB, ASV, NET, RSV, ASV, YLT, DBY, WEB and HNV. This may, however, lead us to assume a confidence in the accuracy of our understanding of its meaning that is not fully warranted. In both the LXX and Vulgate a more literal repetition of both the infinitive and imperfect verb forms are found.

In the “Message” paraphrase version we find “in the moment you eat of it, you’re dead.” This has led some to question the veracity of the text, while others to suggest that God must have relented from his initial decree because this assertion was not literally fulfilled in the sense that we normally understand the meaning of the verb “to die,” particularly when it is put in the context of a specific reference point in time. While others still use these translations to infer that its meaning had to have been fulfilled in a manner that was not initially obvious. In other words Adam’s death did occur in that moment, but only in a spiritual sense. His subsequent physical death was only a necessary consequence of that. This understanding likely occurs because the verb “to die” in the English language is habitually used either in the perfect tense or with a focus upon its perfect state, i.e., its telic (or completed) state. That appears to be more the case when used in the context of the moment of expiration (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

On the other hand, some interpreters try to hurdle this obstacle by qualifying the time reference. The biblical term for “day” is found in other passages as being described to be in God’s perspective “like a thousand years.” Psalm 90 reads “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” And 2 Peter 3:8b reads “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Of those living during the ante-deluvian period, many had life spans that approached surprisingly close to a millennium, but none ever made it past that defining point in time. This interpretation of God’s warning in Gen. 2:17 is not quite entirely exegetically satisfying nor necessary if the full potential semantic range of the Hebrew verb forms used were correctly understood.

In the Hebrew text, the non perfective form of the verb is used. The Hebrew use of either a non perfective or a perfective verb form, does not determine the specific temporal sense as found in English verb tenses, i.e., either past, present or future. The actual tense in which it should be translated depends primarily upon the context. In our text that would be the future. That will determine, however, only when the condition or the action described by the verb will begin. If the full or complete effects of the condition or action described by the verb must be accomplished before the expiration of the time referenced therein, however, one would expect to find a perfective verb form. We do not. Therefore, although “to die,” is a stative verb and has a definite ultimate state towards which it progresses, i.e., the state of being dead, we would not be wrong to assume the meaning of the Hebrew term for dying in this case may include in it the incipient condition of simply becoming mortal or of losing one’s potential for becoming immortal. This would seem to be the simplest way of satisfying an exegetical dilemma otherwise requiring some rather dubious verbal acrobatics.

The immediate loss of that potential was shortly restored through God’s gracious provision (Gen. 3:15) although from that point on it could only be realized through an entirely different mode of achievement. That mode would require an accommodation to the entrance of sin which had already made its seemingly indelible mark. The New Testament sheds much more light on the nature of sin and its relationship to death. On the one hand we are naturally born “dead in our sins and trespasses” (Eph. 2:1, 5). On the other hand there is a sin that does not lead to death, (1 John 5:16-17). We should, nevertheless, always be on guard against “entering into temptation” (Matt. 26:41) because according to James any sin that is fully developed will eventually result in death (James 1:15). James also tells us that sins are conceived and given birth when our own carnal desires entice us and drag us away (1:14).

Paul gives the most comprehensive treatment of the subject in his epistle to the Romans telling us that just “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Rom. 5:21). Any reconciliation of these seemingly contradictory statements about its nature would have to consider what is being meant by the notion of death and whether regeneration has occurred. It may refer to the whole person or that the born again Christian continues to struggle in his battle against some residual sin of his carnal nature throughout his mortal existence. Sin here is viewed as having a certain degree of vitality or the manifestation of a vestige of life inside us that exists to the extent that we do not rule over it and keep it under our own subjection. We are essentially powerless to do that apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit, but even with the Spirit we must continue to exercise constraint because the Spirit will never impose itself over our own will (1 Cor. 14:32). That struggle can be described as “ruling over” (Gen. 4:7), “putting off” (Eph. 4:22, 24; Colossians 2:11), “laying aside” (Hebrews 12:1); “putting to death” (Rom. 8:13, Col. 3:5) the misdeeds of the body or whatever belongs to our carnal nature; to “die to sins” (1 Pet. 2:24); “dying to what once bound us” (Rom. 7:6); “denying oneself and taking up one’s cross” (Luke 9:23) “bearing one’s own cross” (Luke 14:27); “hating one’s own life” (Luke 14:26; John 12:25); “renouncing all one has” (Luke 14:33); “losing one’s life” (Matt. 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 17:33); “being crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20); “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10); “disciplining one’s body and keeping it under control” (1 Cor. 9:27); “being dead” (Col. 3:3); “fighting the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7); or simply to “struggle against sin” (Heb. 12:4).

Despite the fact that the sinful nature may be described as having been crucified, or put to death in the heart, or mind, or life of the believer, this struggle is described as ongoing throughout the life of the Christian (2 Cor. 4:10; 1 John 1:8) and occurring on a daily basis (Luke 9:23, 1 Cor. 15:31). Therefore it is necessary to understand some of the language that is used to describe how the Christian deals with the manifestation of sin in his or her life in a metaphorical sense. When Paul says he dies daily, he must mean that he dies to his sinful nature, or he puts it down, or puts to death his own will by overriding it and making it subject to that of the Spirit.

One means of describing the manifestation of sin could therefore be as anything that has the appearance of life but which does not acknowledge the absolute sovereignty of, or is not in full submission to, the Lordship of Christ, (Matt. 12:30). This appearance of life (James 4:14), although real, may be described by using the term “illusion” because Jesus said that he was the source of life (John 14:6) and that in him was life (John 1:4), and he who has the Son has life, but he who does not have the Son does not have life (1 John 5:12). Therefore one may say that those who are without Christ are abiding in death and have yet to pass from death to life (1 John 3:14). This description fits the model that anticipates the very near and inexorable advent, and the inescapable inevitability of the total reign of Christ over all of his rightful dominion at which time all vestiges of apparent resistance to that reign will have been completely subdued or eliminated. That means that there will then no longer be any manner of ongoing life that represents any form of opposition to that reign. It follows that it would therefore be impossible for those who presently but adamantly persist in their resistance to that rule to survive in any place or form or under any circumstances. At that time both sin and death itself will have been completely destroyed, abolished and eliminated, having served the purpose for which they were once granted an impression of position within that domain (Revelation 21:4).

Reference:

Waltke, Bruce K. and M. O’Conner. 1990. An introduction to biblical Hebrew syntax. Eisenbrauns. Winona Lake, Indiana.

Dr. Kimon Nicolaides is a retired military chaplain. He and his wife, Chin Lee, are planting an Advent Christian Church in Hawaii.

[1] Because of such breadth of the range of fluidity among the meaning of words recent investigations into the best ways of acquiring a second language have suggested that learning phrases is much better than merely attempting to increase one’s vocabulary see e.g. http://www.smartlanguagelearner.com/experts-reveal-method-learning-vocabulary.

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