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Christian views on sin

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Title: Christian views on sin  
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Christian views on sin

The Prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:11-32).

The doctrine of sin is central to Christianity, since its basic message is about redemption in Jesus Christ.[1] Christian hamartiology describes sin as an act of offence against God by despising his Person and his commandments, and by injuring others.[2] It is an evil human act, which violates the rational nature of man as well as God's nature and his eternal law. According to the classical definition of St. Augustine of Hippo sin is "a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God."[3][4]

Among some scholars, sin is understood mostly as legal infraction or contract violation or violation of Christian ethics, and so salvation tends to be viewed in legal terms, which is similar to Jewish thinking, see Judaism and Christianity#Sin for a comparison.

Other Christian scholars understand sin to be fundamentally relational—a loss of love for God and an elevation of self-love ("concupiscence", in this sense), as was later propounded by Augustine in his debate with the Pelagians.[5] As with the legal definition of sin, this definition also affects the understanding of Grace and salvation, which are thus viewed in relational terms.[6][7]


  • Sin in the Bible 1
    • Old Testament 1.1
      • Original sin 1.1.1
  • Roman Catholic views 2
    • Thomas Aquinas 2.1
    • Catechism 2.2
  • Protestant views 3
    • Defined types of sin 3.1
  • Eastern/Oriental Orthodox views 4
  • Jehovah's Witnesses 5
  • Liberal theology 6
  • Christian teachings on atonement, or the remedy for sin 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10
  • External links 11

Sin in the Bible

Old Testament

The first reference to "sin" as a noun is of sin "lying at the door," waiting to overpower Cain, a form of literary theriomorphism.[8] The first use of the verb is God preventing Abimelech from "sinning against me" by touching Abraham's wife in Genesis 20. Isaiah announced the consequences: a separation between God and man, and unrequited worshipping.

Original sin

According to mainstream Christian theology, at the moment Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree—which God had commanded them not to do—both sin and death were born. The years of life were limited. Since Adam represented the human race, he is held responsible, for which reason the Fall of man is referred to as the "sin of Adam", which is deemed to be inherited from him as a condition of fallen human nature. This doctrine is closely associated with Augustine of Hippo. The extent to which it was held by early Christians is debated.[9]

The concept of Original Sin is said to be cause of Adam and his descendants losing unrestricted access to God: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." In Christian theology, the death of Jesus on the cross is the atonement to the sin of Adam.[10] "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." As a result of that act of atonement, all who put their trust in Jesus (and, in some denominations, are baptized) now have unrestricted access to God through him.

Roman Catholic views

Thomas Aquinas

The way St. Thomas Aquinas viewed sin and vices was radically different from later approaches, especially that of 17th century moral theology. The difference is as evident as in the case of gothic and baroque architecture. He presented sin and vices as contraries of virtues. He discusses the subject in his Summa Theologica part Ia-IIae (Prima secundae) qq.71-89.[11]

In one of his definitions of sin Thomas quotes Augustine of Hippo's description of sin as a thought, words and deed against the Eternal Law.[12]

To recognise the possibilities of sin in man is equal to acknowledge his human nature, his control and mastery of his own actions. Sin is a motion to the goal, it is judged by the object to which it is directed. The field of sin is the same as the field of virtue. There are three major fields: relationship with God, with oneself and with the neighbour. Thomas distinguished between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sin is when a person has irreparably destroyed the very principle of his/her order to the goal of life. Venial sin is when he/she has acted in a certain disordered way without destructing that principle:

Aquinas distinguished between sins of omission, and sins of commission[14][15][16]

According to Aquinas the gravity of sin depends also on some disposition of the agent (cf. STh I-II q. 18, aa. 4, 6). Sin, venial by reason of its object, may become mortal. It happens when person fixes his/her ultimate happiness, last end of his/her life (Lat. finis ultimus) in the object of that venial sin. When venial sin is used as a way to provoke mortal sin it becomes mortal as well, e.g. when someone uses empty conversation or a chat to seduce someone to commit adultery. Also sin, mortal by reason of its object, may become venial because of the agent's disposition when his/her evil act does not have full moral capacity, i.e. is not deliberated by reason. That may happen for instance when sudden movements of unbelief arise in the mind. (Cf. STh I-II q.72 a.5).

The difference and gravity of sins may be discerned on the grounds of spirit and flesh – even mortal sins may differ in gravity. Carnal sins like lust, adultery or fornication, gluttony and avarice, because the person who commits them is inordinately directed towards material goods that are a serious matter, are mortal sins. They may cause much shame and infamy. But spiritual sins like blaspheming of God or apostasy are, according to Thomas, still greater evil, as they have more of the aversion from God. They are directed against greater object. The formal, essential element of sin is more at the centre in them. (cf. STh I-II q.72 a.2)[14][17]

According to another formulation of the concept of sin in the Summa, at the heart of sin is the turning away from the immutable good, i.e. God, and inordinate turning to mutable good, i.e. creatures. (STh I-IIae q.87 a.4) This cannot be understood as if in the concrete sinful deed the sinner commits two separate and independent acts. Both aversio and conversio constitute one single guilty action. At the root of the inordinate turning to the creatures is self-love which expresses itself in disordered desire (cupiditas) and rebellion towards God (superbia).[18]

Speaking about sloth (Lat. acedia) Thomas points out that every deed which by its very nature is contrary to charity is a mortal sin. An effect of such deed is the destruction of spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us. Sin of a mortal character is always committed with the consent of reason: Because the consummation of sin is in the consent of reason. (cf. STh II-IIae q.35 a.3) Venial and mortal sins can be compared to sickness and death. While venial sin impairs full healthy activity of a person, mortal sin destroys the principle of spiritual life in him/her.[19]


Roman Catholic doctrine distinguishes between personal sin (also sometimes called "actual sin") and original sin. Personal sins are either mortal or venial.

Mortal sins are sins of grave (serious) matter, where the sinner performs the act with full knowledge and deliberate consent. (cf. CCC 1857)

The act of committing a mortal sin destroys charity, i. e. the grace in the heart of a Christian; it is in itself a rejection of God (CCC1855). If left un-reconciled, mortal sins may lead to eternal separation from God, traditionally called damnation.

Venial sins are sins which do not meet the conditions for mortal sins. The act of committing a venial sin does not cut off the sinner from God's grace, as the sinner has not rejected God. However, venial sins do injure the relationship between the sinner and God, and as such, must be reconciled to God, either through the sacrament of reconciliation or receiving the Eucharist.

Both mortal and venial sins have a dual nature of punishment. They incur both guilt for the sin, yielding eternal punishment, and temporal punishment for the sin. Reconciliation is an act of God's mercy, and addresses the guilt and eternal punishment for sin. Purgatory and indulgences address the temporal punishment for sin, and exercise of God's justice.

Roman Catholic doctrine also sees sin as being twofold: Sin is, at once, any evil or immoral action which infracts God's law and the inevitable consequences, the state of being that comes about by committing the sinful action. Sin can and does alienate a person both from God and the community. Hence, the Catholic Church's insistence on reconciliation with both God and the Church itself.

The Roman Catholic view of sin has recently expanded. Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, Regent of the Catholic Apostolic Penitentiary, has said that "known sins increasingly manifest themselves as behavior that damages society as a whole,"[20] including, for example:

  • "certain violations of the fundamental rights of human nature, through genetic manipulations [or experiments],"
  • "drug [abuse], which weakens the mind and obscures intelligence,"
  • "environmental pollution,"
  • "abortion and pedophilia," and
  • the widening social and economic differences between the rich and the poor, which "cause an unbearable social injustice" (accumulating excessive wealth, inflicting poverty). The revision was aimed at encouraging confession or the Sacrament of Penance.

Mortal sins, which are any severe and intentional actions that directly disobey God, are often confused with the seven deadly sins, which are pride, envy, lust, anger, greed, sloth and gluttony. They are not, however, the same.

Another group of four or five sins distinguished by the Church are the sins that cry to heaven: murder, sodomy, (oppression of a people,) oppression of the weak and defrauding the laborer.[21]

Protestant views

Many Protestants of Calvinist persuasion, teach that, due to original sin, humanity has lost any and all capacity to move towards reconciliation with God (Romans 3:23;6:23; Ephesians 2:1-3); in fact, this inborn sin turns humans away from God and towards themselves and their own desires (Isaiah 53:6a). Thus, humans may be brought back into a relationship with God only by way of God's rescuing the sinner from his/her hopeless condition (Galatians 5:17-21; Ephesians 2:4-10) through Jesus' ransom sacrifice (Romans 5:6-8; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Timothy 2:5-6). According to Calvinism and classical Lutheranism, Salvation is sola fide (by faith alone); sola gratia (by grace alone); and is begun and completed by God alone through Jesus (Ephesians 2:8,9). This understanding of original sin (Romans 5:12-19), is most closely associated with Calvinism (see total depravity) and Lutheranism. Calvinism allows for the "goodness" of humanity through the belief in God's common grace. Methodist theology adapts the concept by stating that humans, entirely sinful and totally depraved, can only "do good" through God's prevenient grace.

This is in contrast to the Catholic teaching that while sin has tarnished the original goodness of humanity prior to the Fall, it has not entirely extinguished that goodness, or at least the potential for goodness, allowing humans to reach towards God to share in the Redemption which Jesus Christ won for them. Some non-Catholic or Orthodox groups hold similar views.

There is dispute about where sin originated. Some who interpret the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28 as a symbol for Satan believe sin originated when Satan coveted the position that rightfully belongs to God. The origin of individual sins is discussed in James 1:14-15 - "14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (NIV)

Defined types of sin

Within some branches of Protestantism, there are several defined types of sin (as in Roman Catholicism):

  • Original sin—Most denominations of Christianity interpret the Garden of Eden account in Genesis in terms of the fall of man. Adam and Eve's disobedience was the first sin man ever committed, and their original sin (or the effects of the sin) is passed on to their descendants (or has become a part of their environment). See also: total depravity.
  • Concupiscence
  • Venial sin
  • Mortal sin
  • apostate, forever denying themselves a life of faith and experience of salvation; the precise nature of this sin is often disputed.

Eastern/Oriental Orthodox views

The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox use sin both to refer to humanity's fallen condition and to refer to individual sinful acts. In many ways the Orthodox Christian view of sin is similar to the Jewish, although neither form of Orthodoxy makes formal distinctions among "grades" of sins.

The Eastern Catholic Churches, which derive their theology and spirituality from same sources as the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, do not use the Latin Catholic distinction between Mortal and Venial sin. However, like the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Catholic Churches do make a distinction between sins that are serious enough to bar one from Holy Communion (and must be confessed before receiving once again) and those which are not sufficiently serious to do so. In this respect, the Eastern Tradition is similar to the Western, but the Eastern Churches do not consider death in such a state to automatically mean damnation to Hell.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that sin is inherited, like a disease, and has been passed on from generation to generation of humans, beginning with Adam and Eve, whom Witnesses believe are real historical characters.[22] They believe that it began with the Devil, and then with humans wanting to decide for themselves what was "Good and Bad." They believe that at that very moment they lost perfection and began to die. Jehovah's Witnesses consider human beings to be souls, and so when a human dies due to sin, they believe that his soul dies as well.[23] They believe that Jesus is the only human ever to have lived and died sinless.

Liberal theology

Within Liberal Christianity, individual sins such as abortion or homosexual acts are often less emphasized. Sin can be seen as interpersonal (harming one's neighbours, friends, or families with negative actions), environmental (pollution, overconsumption), structural (misogyny, racism, etc.), or personal (actions which are harmful to oneself). As a result of this re-interpretation of the traditional concept of sin, new concepts of liberation and salvation are created. Old Testament writers like Amos (2:7), Jeremiah (cf Book of Lamentations 3:34-36) and Nehemiah (1:6f) emphasise social justice and the rights of the oppressed. Modern figures like Martin Luther King, Catholic Dorothy Day [1] and evangelical Jim Wallis have campaigned on issues like social justice, Immigration reform and peace [2].

See also Collective Salvation and Liberation theology

Christian teachings on atonement, or the remedy for sin

In Christianity, atonement can refer to the redemption achieved by Jesus Christ by his virgin birth, sinless life, crucifixion, and resurrection, thereby fulfilling more than 300 Old Testament prophecies. Its centrality to traditional interpretations of Christian theology means that it has been the source of much discussion and some controversy throughout Christian history. Generally it is understood that the death of Jesus Christ was a sacrifice that relieves believers of the burden of their sins. However, the actual meaning of this precept is very widely debated. The traditional teaching of some churches traces this idea of atonement to blood sacrifices in the ancient Hebraic faith.

Christian theologians have presented different interpretations of atonement:

  • Origen taught that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to Satan in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin. This was opposed by theologians like St. Gregory Nazianzen, who maintained that this would have made Satan equal to God.
  • Irenaeus of Lyons taught that Christ recapitulated in Himself all the stages of life of sinful man, and that His perfect obedience substituted for Adam's disobedience.
  • Athanasius of Alexandria taught that Christ came to overcome death and corruption, and to remake humanity in God's image again. See On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius.
  • Augustine of Hippo said that sin was not a created thing at all, but that it was "privatio boni", a "taking away of good", and uncreation.
  • Anselm of Canterbury taught that Christ's death satisfied God's offended sense of justice over the sins of humanity. Also, God rewarded Christ's obedience, which built up a storehouse of merit and a treasury of grace that believers could share by their faith in Christ. This view is known as the satisfaction theory, the merit theory, or sometimes the commercial theory. Anselm's teaching is contained in his treatise Cur Deus Homo, which means Why God Became Human. Anselm's ideas were later expanded utilizing Aristotelian philosophy into a grand theological system by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, particularly in his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, which eventually became official Roman Catholic doctrine. It is often known as the moral influence view, and has dominated Christianity.
  • Pierre Abélard held that Christ's Passion was God suffering with His creatures in order to show the greatness of His love for them.
  • Martin Luther and John Calvin, leaders of the Protestant Reformation, owed much to Anselm's theory and taught that Christ, the only sinless person, was obedient to take upon Himself the penalty for the sins that should have been visited on men and women. This view is a version of substitutionary atonement and is sometimes called substitutionary punishment or a satisfaction theory, though it is not identical to that of Anselm. Calvin additionally advocated the doctrine of limited atonement, which teaches that the atonement applies only to the sins of the elect rather than to all of humanity.
  • D.L. Moody once said, "If you are under the power of evil, and you want to get under the power of God, cry to Him to bring you over to His service; cry to Him to take you into His army. He will hear you; He will come to you, and, if need be, He will send a legion of angels to help you to fight your way up to heaven. God will take you by the right hand and lead you through this wilderness, over death, and take you right into His kingdom. That's what the Son of Man came to do. He has never deceived us; just say here; "Christ is my deliverer.""
  • substitutionary atonement for the punishment humans deserve, but Christ was not punished on behalf of the human race. This view has prospered in traditional Methodism and all who follow the teachings of John Wesley, and has been detailed by, among others, 19th century Methodist theologian John Miley in his classic Atonement in Christ and 20th century Church of the Nazarene theologian J. Kenneth Grider in his Wesleyan-Holiness Theology. Variations of this view have also been espoused by 18th century Puritan Jonathan Edwards and 19th century revival leader Charles Grandison Finney.
  • Karl Barth taught that Christ's death manifested God's love and His hatred for sin.
  • Barbara Reid, a feminist Dominican, argues that atonement is a harmful theology, especially to women and other oppressed groups. Other liberal theologians have also challenged the traditional view of atonement. See Collective salvation
  • Mary Baker Eddy taught that atonement exemplifies our underlying spiritual unity with God, whereby we reflect divine Love (God): Christ's atonement reconciles man to God, not God to man.

See also


  1. ^ Rahner, p. 1588
  2. ^ Sabourin, p. 696
  3. ^ Contra Faustum Manichaeum, 22,27; PL 42,418; cf. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II q71 a6.
  4. ^ Mc Guinness, p. 241
  5. ^ On Grace and Free Will (see Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, trans. P.Holmes, vol. 5; 30-31 [14-15]).
  6. ^ Grace is understood as God's love brought to the human soul by the Spirit (Romans 5:5), and salvation is the establishment of that love relationship.
  7. ^ For a historical review of this understanding, see R.N.Frost, "Sin and Grace", in Paul L. Metzger, Trinitarian Soundings, T&T Clark, 2005.
  8. ^ Synthesis: bulletin du Comité national de littérature comparée / Comitetul Național pentru Literatură Comparată, Institutul de Istorie și Teorie Literară "G. Călinescu." - 2002 "Sin is personified as (an animal?) which "crouches" at the door of Cain (Gen 4:7). As Gerhard von Rad (Genesis, 105) remarks, 'The comparison of sin with a beast of prey lying before the door is strange, as is the purely decorative use"
  9. ^ A. J. Wallace, R. D. Rusk, R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation, Bridgehead, 2010, p.281.
  10. ^ Stephen Finlan, Problems With Atonement: The Origins Of, And Controversy About, The Atonement Doctrine, Liturgical Press, 2005, p.4
  11. ^ Pinckaers, pp. 220 and 225-6
  12. ^ Contra Faustum, 22, 27, PL 44,418:
  13. ^ Cf. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica I-II q. 71 Of Vice and Sin Considered in Themselves
  14. ^ a b Cf. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica I-II q. 72 Of the Distinction of Sins
  15. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Omission, New Advent, retrieved 28 February 2012 
  16. ^ Aquinas: Aquinas's Thoughts On Morality, The Philosopher's Lighthouse, retrieved 28 February 2012 
  17. ^ Farrell, p.255-272
  18. ^  ; cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-IIae q34 a2; I q94 a1; II-IIae q162 a6; I-IIae q72 a2.
  19. ^ Farrell, p. 353
  20. ^ "Vatican lists new sinful behaviors". Associated Press. 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-03-11. Retrieved 2008-03-10. 
  21. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997: "1867 The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are "sins that cry to heaven": the blood of Abel, the sin of the Sodomites, the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner."
  22. ^ "What Does the Bible Really Teach" pp. 61-63 'Why humans die?'
  23. ^ "What Does the Bible Really Teach" pp. 57-65 'Where are the Dead?'


  • Mc Guinness, I. Sin (Theology of), in: New Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. XIII, (reprinted 1981), The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., pp. 241–245.
  • Rahner, Karl, Schoonberg, Piet. "Sin", in: Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi . (1986) Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK: Burns & Oates. pp. 1579–1590. ISBN 0-86012-228-X
  • Farrell, Walter, A companion to the Summa vol. 2 – The Pursuit of Happiness (1985 /reprinted 2nd ed./) Westminster, Maryland - London: Christian Classics, Sheed & Ward, p. 467, ISBN 0-7220-2520-3 (UK) 0-87061-119-4 (USA)
  • Pieper, Josef, The Concept of Sin,(2001), tranlsated by Edward T. Oakes SJ, South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustines Press; p. 128 ISBN 1-890318-08-6
  • Pinckaers, Servais, The Sources of Christian Ethics, (trnasl. from French by M. T. Noble O.P.), Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 1995. Reprinted: Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ISBN 0-567-29287-8 p. 489
  • Sabourin, Leopold SJ, Sin, in: The Oxford Companion to the Bible. (1993) Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan (ed.) New York - Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504645-5, pp. 696.

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