by Young Oon Kim
The New Testament Teaching About Sin
A. In the Synoptic Gospels:
In Mark, Matthew and Luke-Acts, sin refers to the source of evil deeds rather than to specific acts. Men are a brood of poisonous serpents whose hearts are filled with evil (Mt. 12:34). Mark 7:21 lists twelve evils (beginning with fornication) which originate in the heart and make man unclean. Sin implies Satan's domination over man. The Dead Sea Scrolls teach that men are subjected to the rule of Belial, and the Synoptics interpret Jesus' mission as a confrontation with the power of Satan. Peter describes Jesus' ministry as "doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil..." (Acts 10:38). Paul preached to the Gentiles in order that they might turn "from the dominion of Satan to God, and receive ... a share in the inheritance of the sanctified. . ." (Acts 26:18).
B. In the Johannine Writings:
Nearly always in the Johannine literature, we read about "sin" rather than specific "sins." Sin then ordinarily refers to a power which thrusts man away from God into a state of total alienation. Jesus' messianic role is to take away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29) by bestowing the Holy Spirit. The Spirit rescues Christians from the devil's realm. Communion with God through the baptism of the Spirit destroys in man the possibility of sinning (I Jn. 3:5-9). The contrast between the sinner and the perfected believer is as great as the difference between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death.
I John shows the difference between the Christian and the sinner (3:3-10). The sinner accepts Satan's rule and acts accordingly. The Christian, however, is liberated from Satan, as his behavior demonstrates. He has escaped from Satanic domination. Hence, he who commits sin is of the devil (I Jn. 3:8). He is a slave (Jn. 8:34) whose father is the devil (8:44). As the righteous live under the guidance of the indwelling Spirit of God, so sinners have allowed themselves to be seduced by God's adversary. We are either a child of God or of the Evil One, living in light or in darkness.
C. In Paul and "Pauline" Literature:
Pauline literature resembles the dualistic theology of John. Like the Fourth Gospel, Paul believes in a personified power of evil: "Belial" (11 Cor. 6:15) or "the man of iniquity" (11 Thess. 2:8). He traces Satan's domination to Adam (Rom. 5:14), as I Timothy ascribes it to Eve (2:14). Paul was familiar with lists of sins which were popular in pagan as well as Jewish circles of the time. For example, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs names seven kinds of moral errors, the first of which is "the spirit of fornication" seated in the body and its senses (T of Reuben 3:2-8). Philo describes 140 vices originating from "pleasure." 9 Like the Greeks, Paul stresses the sexual sins. He emphasizes "our sinful passions" (Rom. 7:5), especially when he condemns the widespread immorality of the Roman empire. This is also seen in the way he identifies "greediness" 10 with "fornication" and "idolatry." For Paul idolatry provided the source of pagan sexual disorders and "unnatural practices" (Rom. 1:24 ff).
Many readers of Paul feel that he locates the ultimate source of sin in man's flesh. For this reason, Paulinism naturally led to Marcion's dualism, Gnosticism, Syrian encratism 11 and Egyptian monasticism. Paul states that "the desire of the flesh" is hostile to God (Rom. 8:7). The flesh especially is the place which arouses passions and is a breeding ground of sin. Because man is carnal, he has been sold to sin, like a slave (Rom. 7:14). Hence, Paul can write about our "sinful body" (Rom. 6:6). His general position is very clear: "Make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:14).
Neither Greek dualists like Plato nor Christians like Paul believe that it is impossible to master the lusts of the flesh. Thus, Paul could say to the Corinthians: "It is not true that the body is for lust; it is for the Lord and the Lord is for the body. . . . Do you not know that your bodies are limbs and organs of Christ? ... Do you know that your body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit ... ? Then honor God in your body" (I Cor. 6:13-20).
Most important is the way Paul personifies sin. In Romans chapters 5-8, he speaks forty times of the fact that all men are ruled by sin. Sin entered man through Adam, has spread throughout the human race and even affects the material world. The power of sin operates through man's flesh, arousing concupiscence and manifesting itself in numerous acts of lawlessness. Sin seduces man (Rom. 7:12), as the serpent seduced Eve. Sin therefore became the prince of this world. Man can only be liberated from Satan's tyranny through the gift of God's life-giving Spirit.
9 Treatise on Abel and Cain, XXXII.
10 Greediness-desire for more, covetousness. In the Fall story, the desire of Adam and Eve for the forbidden tree is described as "covetousness" (Gen. 3:6).
11 Encratism -- belief that the body is evil; cf. Tatian, an early church father.
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