The “Essentials” of Sin
Within the context of his discussion of the nature of sin as lawlessness, and a kind of privation or defection from the fullness of the life of the creature in conformity to God’s will, Bavinck identifies a number of characteristic features or “essentials” of sin. First, since sin is not a physical thing, a part of the “stuff” of creation, or a metaphysical antithesis of the good, it must be understood as an “ethical-spiritual” antithesis of the good. According to Bavinck, it is “supremely important” to regard sin as an “ethical phenomenon” that only comes after, and ever remains dependent upon the prior existence of, what God originally created good (RD 3.198). If sin is granted an independent reality and existence in relation to God and his good creation, then it can neither be overcome nor conquered through God’s work of redemption.
Fallen angels and humans as creatures are and remain good and exist from moment to moment only by, and in, and for God. And just as sin is dependent on the good in its origin and existence, so it is in its operation and struggle. It has power to do anything only with and by means of the power and gifts that are God-given. Satan has therefore correctly been called the ape of God. When God builds a church, Satan adds a chapel; over against the true prophet, he raises up a false prophet; over against the Christ, he poses the Antichrist. Even a band of robbers can only exist if within its own organization it respects the rules. (RD 3.139)
Second, though sin has real power to corrupt and ruin what God originally created good, it never has the power to “create” in the strict sense of the word, calling something into existence out of nothing. Nor does sin have the power to destroy or annihilate what God created. Neither Satan, the fallen angels, nor human beings as sinners, cease to be “creatures” in the proper sense of the term. “What has changed is not the substance, the matter, but the form in which these [creaturely powers, capacities and gifts] show themselves, the direction in which they function” (RD 3.139).
Third, even though sin has frightfully deformed and changed the image of God into a “caricature” of itself, human beings retain the faculties and powers with which they were created. The image of God, at least in the sense of the active conformity of human life to God’s will in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, has been lost through the fall into sin. However, all human beings remain subject to the original requirement of the pre-fall covenant of works, namely, to offer to God absolute and undivided obedience. And this requirement has been incorporated into the covenant of grace in which the law of the covenant of works “has been completely fulfilled [by Christ] and now still remains as a rule of gratitude for believers” (RD 3.140).
Fourth, sin as a “privation” of the good “deforms” the life of the creature, including human life. The deformity of human life through sin is the result of the creature’s departure from the divine law. But such deformity does not alter the nature of the creature. Just as illness causes a body to become sick, so sin alters and deforms human life. And yet even the sickness of sin does not change the “substance” of human life as it was created by God.
Fifth, the moral law of God is the only absolute standard or measure for our knowledge of human sin and disobedience. In the law of God, we have a revelation of God himself, a disclosure of the dictates that flow from his essential holiness and righteousness. Even though it is possible for human beings to be unaware of their sin (itself a consequence of their sinfulness), the objective reality of human sinfulness is always uncovered through the searching light of the revealed law of God.
Sixth, sin can only “reside in a rational creature. Irrational nature can suffer the consequences of sin, but sin itself can only occur in a being endowed with intellect and will” (RD 3.142). In order for creatures to obey or to disobey, they must be creatures of responsibility before God, able to know and to will in conformity with his holy law. Human beings were created in the image of God, and were endowed with intellect and will. However, the biblical doctrine of original sin requires the acknowledgement that all human beings have become pervasively corrupted in all of their faculties, desires, and passions. They not only suppress the truth in unrighteousness but they also have become incapable, because unwilling, to do what pleases God.
And seventh, however much we may know and say about sin, it must ever remain a profound mystery and enigma. “When all is said and done, sin proves to be an incomprehensible mystery. We know neither whence it is nor what it is. It exists, but it has no right to existence. It exists, but no one can explain its origin. Sin itself came into the world without motivations, yet is the motivation for all human thought and action. . . . It is the greatest contradiction tolerated by God in his creation, yet used by him in the way of justice and righteousness as an instrument for his glory” (RD 3.145).
At the conclusion of his treatment of these different features of sin, Bavinck notes that the New Testament “reveals to us a kingdom (Basileia; Matt. 12:26; Mark 3:24; Luke 11:17–18) of evil spirits, a kingdom that is the antithesis of Christ and his kingdom” (RD 3.146). The head of this kingdom is Satan, the archenemy of God, who is an “accuser” of God’s people and the ruler of the principalities and powers of darkness that are arrayed against Christ and his kingdom. Although there are similarities between the sin and disobedience of the fallen angels who comprise this kingdom of evil and the sin and disobedience of the human race, there are important differences between them as well. The Scriptures nowhere teach that God’s love and grace in Christ are aimed at the redemption and restoration of these sinful creatures. Within God’s good pleasure and choice, there is no provision for their salvation through the work of Christ, who is the Mediator and covenant head of the new humanity. In the Bible, a clear distinction is drawn between those (elect) angels who remain obedient to God and those who fell into sin and disobedience. Since the fallen angels, including Satan, are nowhere represented as constitutive of a “single race” like the human race in Adam, they are likewise never represented as being under either the pre-fall “covenant of works” or the post-fall “covenant of grace” (RD 3.148). Though the sin of fallen angels is similar in kind to the sin of human beings‒in both cases sin is fundamentally “lawlessness” or acting contrary to the revealed law of God‒the Scriptures provide no basis for speaking of the redemption of these angels from the consequences of their sin and disobedience. Whereas there is a broad “alliance” between all creatures who are ethically responsible to obey God (angels as well as human beings who bear God’s image), there is no direct link between God’s purposes of redemption in Christ for his elect people and his purposes for “non-elect” angels or fallen spirits.
The Diversity and Development of Sin
One of the important aspects of the biblical doctrine of sin has to do with the question whether there is a difference between various kinds of sins, and whether we may speak of the development of sin from lesser to greater. Since there is an absolute division between good and evil, and since every sin is a transgression of the holy law of God, there is a profound sense in which all sin is equal. Because the law of God “is an organism,” any violation of the law is a violation of the entire law (RD 3.149). Though we may want to minimize the seriousness of sin, any failure to do what God’s law requires is a manifestation of an unwillingness to consent to the law in its entirety. Even as the law of God makes an absolute claim on us as creatures, so any disobedience to the law represents a spirit of rebellion and disobedience toward God’s law as a whole. For this reason, whatever differences may obtain between different kinds of sins, these differences are not between some sins that are excusable or inconsequential and others that are inexcusable and consequential. All sin is inexcusable and deadly in its consequence.
Nevertheless, Bavinck observes that the Scriptures do offer a basis for distinguishing between different kinds of sins, and recognizing that not all sins are “equal” in nature and consequence. According to biblical teaching, obedience is more than an outward conformity to the requirements of God’s law; the inner disposition is more significant than the outward deed. This is in part the basis for a distinction in the law of God between sins that are committed “inadvertently,” out of ignorance or weakness, and sins that are committed “consciously and intentionally” (to sin “with a high hand”; Lev. 4; 5; 22:14, etc.). Because the law of God is the standard or measure of sin, even inadvertent or ignorant sins violate the law of God. But the degree of knowledge and intention does mitigate to some extent the consequence or punishment that is appropriate: the greater the knowledge of and conscious intent to violate the law of God, the greater the liability to punishment. It is also important to distinguish sins in respect to their “object” or that to which they are directed. Sins committed against the requirements of the first table of the law, which identifies the obligations of love toward God, are more serious than sins committed against the second table of the law, which identifies the requirements of love toward others (RD 3.151). Sins also vary in terms of such considerations of the “circumstances” in which they are committed, or of the “degree” to which the offender gives in to the allure of sin. For example, the sin of theft by a poor person is different than the sin of theft by a wealthy person who is motivated solely by avarice. Or the sin of lust, though a violation of the seventh commandment, is lesser in degree than the sin of lust that includes the commission of the act of adultery as well. The mystery and enigma of sin does not prevent us, according to Bavinck, from identifying a “dynamic of development,” in which particular sins originate “step-by-step by suggestion, enjoyment, consent, and execution” (RD 3.151).
Mortal and Venial Sins?
In the history of the church, the diversity and development of sin has given rise to a number of distinctions between various kinds of sins. Among these distinctions, there are sins of “thought, word, and deed”; sins of “omission” and “commission”; sins of ignorance, weakness, and of the “high hand”; sins that are called “cardinal” or (seven) “deadly” sins, and the like. These distinctions are often helpful, and help to illumine scriptural teaching. However, one common distinction, which has played an important role in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, is the distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins. In Bavinck’s estimation, this distinction does not enjoy the support of Scripture, tends to diminish the seriousness of all sin, and is inseparably and unhappily linked to the practice of the sacrament of penance.
The historic distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins originated in the course of the development of the doctrine of penance in the Roman Catholic Church. Mortal sins are offenses against the law of God in a grave or important matter. Such sins are committed intentionally and cause their perpetrators to fall out of a state of grace so that they become liable to spiritual death. The only means to restore the sinner who commits mortal sin is the sacrament of penance. By comparison or contrast, venial sins are offenses against the law of God in a minor matter, often committed unintentionally, which do not cause their perpetrators to fall out of state of grace. As Bavinck observes, venial sins include “an idle word, overly boisterous laughter, spontaneously arising desire, outbursts of temper or anger, a very small theft, and so on” (RD 3.153). In the sacrament of penance, the penitent sinner is required to confess all mortal sin and seek reinstatement into the communion of Christ and his church through priestly absolution. Venial sins are also to be confessed to the extent possible, though it is recognized that not all such offenses are able to be known and confessed.
In his assessment of this distinction and its role in the sacrament of penance, Bavinck properly observes that it ends up with “an atomistic, casuistic, mechanical, and materialistic assessment of sins and their reparations, while keeping the souls in a perpetual state of fear about whether they have committed a mortal sin, or inciting them to frivolousness and indifference, since the sins are usually of a very light kind and easy to correct” (RD 3.155). The only antidote to this distinction and its consequences is a clear understanding of the seriousness, even deadliness, of all sin before God and of the gospel of God’s amazing grace in Christ that is able to cover all sins in his sight.
The Unpardonable Sin against the Holy Spirit
Although Bavinck repudiates the traditional distinction between mortal and venial sins, he does recognize the moment of truth that this distinction improperly reflects. In the teaching of Scripture, the diversity and development of sin is most strikingly expressed in the doctrine of the so-called “unpardonable” sin against the Holy Spirit. Whereas God’s grace is ordinarily sufficient to cover every sin, it is possible to sin knowingly, intentionally, and persistently against the Spirit and grace of Christ in such a way as to place oneself outside of the wide reach of God’s unfathomable grace.
We are taught by Jesus himself in the Gospels (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10) that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is a sin for which there is no pardon. In the book of Hebrews, we are also taught that it is possible for those “who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,” to spurn, crucify, and hold the Son of God up for contempt (Heb. 6:4–6; 10:25–29). The sin described in these passages is not simply the sin of unbelief, refusing to believe what the Holy Spirit reveals in the Word of God. Nor is it simply a general willingness to sin against better knowledge or the gospel as it has been revealed to the sinner. According to Bavinck, the profile of the sin described in these passages is as follows: “It then consists in a conscious and deliberate attribution of what has been clearly perceived as God’s work to the influence and activity of Satan, that is, in a deliberate blaspheming of the Holy Spirit, a defiant declaration that the Holy Spirit is the spirit from the abyss, that the truth is a lie, that Christ is Satan himself” (RD 3.156). What is unique to this sin is that it “rules out all remorse, scorches the conscience shut, definitively hardens the sinner, and in this way makes his sins unpardonable” (RD 3.156).
The unpardonable sin is illustrative of the sobering fact that sin can take the form of acting against what the sinner knows to be true, and persisting in blatant unbelief and contempt for the grace of God held out in the gospel. While anyone who fears that he may have committed this sin may rest assured thereby that he has not done so, the Scriptural teaching concerning the unpardonable sin is a sobering reminder that we dare not treat the gracious promises of the gospel with open contempt or scorn.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.