The Bible is full of about 20 major themes and another 50–70 smaller one. And when it comes to explaining how each theme develops from Genesis to Revelation, I don’t know of anyone who does it better than Dr. Don Carson. On select Fridays we release a little longer episode than normal where we call up Dr. Carson, he takes up one theme, and explains it.
We’ve done this five times with an episode on: What is biblical theology? It’s a good general overview of this sort of thing. Then we recorded an overview of the whole Bible, which was very popular, as you could imagine, followed by a theology of creation, a theology of the temple, and then a theology of resurrection a few days before Easter.
It’s been a great series, well received, and we’ve only begun. Dr. Carson joins us again today over the phone — fruit of our partnership with our friends at The Gospel Coalition. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and also the editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which is the Study Bible version of what we’re doing in these podcasts.
I called Dr. Carson at his home office and asked for him to share a whole Bible theology of the theme of sin. Here’s what he said.
In one sense, what the Bible says about sin is so comprehensive that it is really challenging to get to the heart of the issue in 10 minutes or so. Virtually every page of the Bible says something implicitly or explicitly about sin.
One thing it does not say is that sin was there in the beginning. Sin is portrayed in Genesis 3 as rebellion. It is not that matter is intrinsically sinful, for example. Sin is portrayed as doubting God’s Word — “Has God said?” (Genesis 3:1) — mocking God, standing in a position where we can criticize God. God knows that if you eat this fruit and you will be like him and he doesn’t want you to be like him. He is jealous and narrow-minded and rather bigoted (Genesis 3:4–5). Sin is, first and foremost, rebellion against God and what he has disclosed of himself in words. And that notion of sin prevails in one fashion or another across the entire sweep of Scripture.
The reason why it is important to think clearly about sin is manifold. But, in particular, to think clearly about sin helps you to think clearly about salvation and the Savior. The problem that is addressed by the Bible storyline is the problem of sin. And the solution that is presented in the coming of Christ and in his work must match the problem itself. If the fundamental problem of humankind is bad economics, then what we need is a superb economist. If the supreme need of humankind is good health, then what we need is superb medical facilities.
But if the supreme problem is sin, then what we need is a salvation that addresses sin, not only the concrete acts of rebellion, but all of its effects including alienation and suffering and sickness and war and hate and finally death itself and hell. The notion of sin in Scripture is the notion of what is wrong with the universe and, therefore, constitutes what it is that God is sending his Son to address.
Now within that framework it is easy to start teasing out the Bible storyline in terms of sin. So after Genesis 3 and the temptation of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 4 you have the first murder, fratricide. By the time you get to Genesis 5 you have the repetition of the phrase: “and he died,” “and he died,” “and he died,” “and he died,” which is the entailment of sin. When you sin, you will die. And then Genesis 6–9, the flood account, which is generated by God’s disgust and hatred of sin and its pervasive judgment attracting evil across the face of the earth and so on, right through the biblical accounts of the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs, and the story of Joseph and so on — all of which take up the rest of the book of Genesis.
Abraham was a man of faith. He was a godly man. He was also a liar. The 12 patriarchs include 10 who are trying to decide between killing and selling into slavery the 11th. And Judah, who is ultimately the great, great, great-grandfather of King David and ultimately of Christ himself, is busy sleeping with a step-daughter. Sin is interwoven into the accounts. And one could certainly go through Exodus and Leviticus with its sacrificial systems to deal with impurity and sin of various kinds — and everything turns on the pervasiveness of sin.
And then one comes to the book of Judges, and we witness the cycling down of periods of reformation as people are broken and they cry to God for help and then God restores them by raising up a judge and bringing about some measure of purity into the land again within a generation and a half or so. Things spiral down to idolatry and perversity and so on. Until you get to the last three chapters of the book of Judges and they are so grotesque, even the so-called good guys are pretty horrendous — and it is hard to read those chapters in public.
So we could proceed through the kings and the prophets and so on and witness the pervasiveness of all of this, but let me instead direct your attention to a few passages of Scripture that are in many ways determinative.
In Exodus 34:6–7 God intones certain words to Moses as Moses is hidden in a cleft of the rock so that he cannot see God. He is later permitted to peak out and see something of the trailing edge of the afterglow of the glory of the Lord. But as God goes by and intones certain words, there is a built-in tension in what God says. On the one hand, God presents himself as a God of immeasurable mercy and grace. God says, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” That is the one side. On the other side: “Yet he does not leave the guiltily unpunished. He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” At the end of the day, that tension is not really finally resolved until you get to the New Testament and the cross.
Or another passage that gives a lot of insight. In Psalm 51 we find David penning this psalm of contrition after his horrible lapse, seducing Bathsheba, murdering her husband, corrupting the military, betraying his family, and lying about everything. Until finally he is confronted by the prophet Nathan and comes to real, deep repentance. But there is a lot of damage that has been done just the same.
One of the most intriguing things that he says, however, is in Psalm 51:4. He begins in verse 1 by saying, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassions, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” The man really knows how guilty he is. “I know my transgressions. My sin is always before me.”
And then he says in verse 4, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” But the truth of the matter is that at one level the reader is tempted to say: Come on, David, how can you say that you have sinned only against God?
You have sinned against Bathsheba. You seduced her. And you sinned against Uriah, the Hittite. Surely you had him killed. You sinned against the military high command. You corrupted them. You sinned against the nation in that you are the chief magistrate and you fail on a fundamental level. You sinned against your own family. You betrayed them. It is hard to think of anybody you didn’t sin against. And you say: “Against you only,” — addressing God, — “have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.”
Yet at another level that is exactly the point. What makes sin so heinous is not all of its — shall we call it — horizontal dimensions, but that it is defiance of God. It is not loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength. If David had loved God with heart and soul and mind and strength, he would not have committed any of these sins. In all of our sins, whether it is cheating on our income tax or nurturing bitterness or succumbing to fits of rage or jealousy or anything else, God is always the most offended party. That means, in Scripture, whatever else we must have, we must have forgiveness from God. The heart of the worst effects of sin is being alienated from God, cut off from him who is our Maker and the Giver of life. If he stands against us, then we are lost. We are undone.
So, although the Bible does stress the importance of reconciliation at the horizontal level, the heart of the Bible’s storyline is how sinful human beings made in the image of God, alienated from him, deserving of his wrath, nevertheless can be reconciled to him, which brings us, again and again, to the gospel of the cross and resurrection of Christ.
And some other things need to be said briefly about the Bible storyline. Sin tends to be a generic word for evil, but there are other words that overlap in semantic range — in the range of meaning with sin — but have some sort of specialized focus.
Idolatry, for example, shows how sin erects a false god. It displaces God. One could track out the significance of idolatry right through the Bible. The New Testament can insist that greed is idolatry because what you want strongly enough becomes God for you and God becomes degodded.
Another word is transgression. Now it is not evil in some summary sense; it is actually going against, crossing over, transgressing the boundaries that God has put in place. It is doing what he prohibits. It is failing to do what he explicitly commands. So there is transgression.
And iniquity and failure and dirt. There are many different words that describe sin and all of them together need to be thought through.
Now in that connection, then, there are related theological notions that need to be borne in mind. For example, the wrath of God. About 600 times in the Old Testament alone, in fact, apart from the occurrences in the New Testament — the Bible speaks of God’s wrath. This does not mean that God is bad-tempered or loses it or anything of that sort. His wrath is not an intrinsic part of his character the way his love is. His wrath is the outworking of his holiness when he confronts sin. And if God did not express wrath, condemnation, judgment on sin, he would not be, thereby, nicer. He would be morally indifferent. He would not become morally attractive. He would become irrelevant to questions of truth and integrity and morality both in this life and in the life to come.
Then there are other elements of sin that we should think about. For example, the prophet Habakkuk can ask the question: “I understand,” — he says, in effect, — “how God might use a wicked nation to punish another wicked nation. But how can he use a nation that seems to be more wicked to punish a nation that is on any measurable front less wicked? (see Habakkuk 1:12–13). And he is thinking about how his own people, the Israelites, are being punished by the regional superpowers of his day, which, on any measurement, are more wicked. And that raises some fundamental questions which he resolves, finally, by going into the temple and being convinced of the goodness of the Lord and of an eschatological reconciliation on the last day.
There are other pictures of sin. Apostasy, for example, seems a kind of spiritual adultery. All of these pictures come together. In Matthew 11:20–24, the grievousness of guilt is tied, in part, to how much revelation we have already received. So in that connection, Capernaum and Bethsaida, cities which witnessed a great deal of Christ’s gospel preaching and powerful miracles, will stand more condemned in a worse place on the last day than Sodom and Gomorrah or pagan cities like Tyre and Sidon. Or, to put it in contemporary terms, it may well be, then, that on the last day, Kabul, Afghanistan will be in a less dangerous place than Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It really is important to see that the doctrine of sin in Scripture is really very complex. It is not just a matter of bean counting. It includes very complex notions that only God himself could finally sort out, in which guilt is tied, at least, in part, to how we have done and what we have done with the revelation we have received.
And all of this presupposes the universality, too, in the very interesting comments of the Lord Christ in Luke 13:1–5 where Jesus reminds the people of the tower that fell on a number of people and crushed 18 of them, or where he talks about those whose blood was mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. In both cases, he asks the question, Do you think that these people who thus suffered were more wicked, more sinful, than others who did not similarly suffer? And it is a big question, like asking, Do you think that the people who came down on the twin towers on 9/11 were more wicked than everybody else in America? And Jesus does not say: Oh, they are not wicked at all. What he says is: Unless you repent, all of you will similarly perish.
In other words, the disasters, whether made by human beings or so-called natural disasters, are marks of judgment that is deserved by everybody. And it is of the Lord’s mercy we are not consumed. And that eventually sets us up for the long, long passage, Romans 1:18–3:20, which begins, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all human wickedness, human beings suppressing the truth,” and so forth. Section after section is taken up with proving that Jews are guilty before God and Gentiles are guilty before God. We are all shameful and dirtied and sullied. Until you get the incantation of biblical quotations from Romans 3:9–20 — all verses that are designed to prove that human beings are lost and guilty.
It reminds me of some passages in the Old Testament. I occasionally will set myself to memorize a psalm or something like that. And one that I have been working on recently is Psalm 36. “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes. In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin” (Psalm 36:1–2). That is almost a description of contemporary culture. We flatter ourselves too much to detect or hate our sin. “The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good. Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not rejected what is wrong” (Psalm 36:3–4).
But when one is finished with all of these reflections on sin and one tracks out the myriad lines that describe sin across the entire biblical canon, one cannot help but remember that at the long passage in Romans 1:18–3:20 comes one of the most glorious atonement passages in all of Holy Scripture, Romans 3:21–26. Here God takes action in Christ Jesus and his death, both to justify the ungodly and to be just himself in the sacrifice of his own dear Son — a sacrifice that simultaneously turns aside God’s wrath — it propitiates God and it cancels sin. It expiates sin until you come to the final two chapters and the portrait of a new heaven and a new earth where part of the glory of the portrait is that there is no more sin, no more death, no more decay, no more fear, no more shame (Revelation 21:4). The glory of the Lamb, is everything and God’s people will see his face (Revelation 21:22–22:5). And here, then, finally, is the abolition of all sin and its effects grounded in the triumph of the Lion-Lamb.