Hamartiology


Christians often disagree regarding matters of personal holiness.  Those defending themselves against the charge of sin for some X will often respond by saying, “It’s not that bad.”  Of course, to say something is “not that bad” is tantamount to saying it’s “not that good” either.  In such cases, we should be honest with ourselves and others and just admit that X is not spiritually advantageous for us, even if it is morally tolerable.  Would we be better off if we abstained?  Perhaps.  Are we sinning if we don’t?  No.

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IFWe should not confuse permissiveness for grace. Grace says, “I love you and forgive you, so you need to stop this sin,” not “I love you and forgive you, so it doesn’t matter what you do.”  We are living in a culture that thinks love and forgiveness mean we should permit people to continue in their sin while we continue in our silence.  This is not grace, and this is not love.  Grace and love will always confront sin, because grace and love are the remedy for sin, not the license to continue in it.

J. P. MorelandAlmost everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, knows of Jesus’ teaching, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Mt 7:1).  I have addresses the proper interpretation of this passage elsewhere in my treatment of judgmentalism, but I recently read some brief comments by J. P. Moreland on the matter that I found  helpful as well.  Moreland writes:

[W]e need to distinguish two senses of judging:  condemning and evaluating.  The former is wrong and is in view in Matthew 7.  When Jesus says not to judge, he means it in the sense that the Pharisees judged others:  their purpose was to condemn the person judged and to elevate themselves above that person.  Now this is a form of self-righteous blindness that vv. 2-4 explicitly forbid.  Such judgment is an expression of a habitual approach to life of avoiding self-examination and repentance and, instead, propping oneself up by putting others down.[1]

The distinction between moral condemnation and moral evaluation is an important one.  We cannot and must not avoid moral evaluations.  Such are necessary and good.  What we must avoid are moral condemnations of people that elevate our own sense of moral superiority and blind us to our own moral inadequacies.


[1]J. P. Moreland, “On Judging Others: Is There a Right Way?”; available fromhttp://www.jpmoreland.com/2012/12/19/on-judging-others-is-there-a-right-way/; Internet; accessed 31 January 2013.

One of the distinguishing marks of the new atheists is that they not only think religion is false, but that it is dangerous and immoral too.  Even God himself is not above their judgment.  They regularly chide the God of the Bible as being a moral monster!  They accuse Him of being pro-genocide, anti-women, pro-rape, pro-slavery, etc.  Rather than the paradigm of moral goodness, God is an evil despot that is to be shunned.  You know it’s a bad day when even God is evil!

Is what they say true?  Is God – particularly as He is portrayed in the OT – morally evil?  Many Christians are sympathetic to this charge because they themselves struggle to understand God’s actions and commands, particularly as revealed in the OT.  Thankfully there have been some well-written responses to the problem of “theistic evil” written in recent years to dispel this negative portrait of God.  

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Tim Keller had this to say about the relationship between immorality and irrationality:

Every one of our sinful actions has a suicidal power on the faculties that put that action forth. When you sin with the mind, that sin shrivels the rationality. When you sin with the heart or the emotions, that sin shrivels the emotions. When you sin with the will, that sin destroys and dissolves your willpower and your self-control. Sin is the suicidal action of the self against itself. Sin destroys freedom because sin is an enslaving power.

In other words, sin has a powerful effect in which your own freedom, your freedom to want the good, to will the good, and to think or understand the good, is all being undermined. By sin, you are more and more losing your freedom. Sin undermines your mind, it undermines your emotions, and it undermines your will.[1]

See also What I’ve Been Reading: The Making of an Atheist, Part I

HT: STR


It is often said that Adam and Eve did not know the difference between good and evil prior to eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE).  This does seem to be the straightforward meaning of Genesis 3:22a: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.’” (ESV)  There are a couple of problems I see with this interpretation, however:

  1. The text does not say Adam and Eve only gained knowledge of evil after the Fall, but knowledge of “good and evil.”  If we understand “knowledge” in a cognitive sense, this would mean God originally created human beings as amoral beings, having no knowledge of moral concepts or moral categories.  If we were created as amoral beings, then our moral intuitions and our capacity for moral reasoning are not part of the imago Dei (image of God) in which we were created, but rather a consequence of the Fall.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for two reasons: (1) Moral reasoning is one of the unique characteristics of God that among God creatures, humans alone exhibit.  Since humans alone were created in the imago Dei, it stands to reason that moral reasoning was part of that original imago Dei; (2) How is it possible for an act of disobedience to produce in us the knowledge of good?  Evil, yes, but good?
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The evidential problem of evil points to the improbability that the amount of evil we see in the world – particularly gratuitous evil – would exist if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.  The argument usually takes the following form: 

(1)   If God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist
(2)   Gratuitous evil exists
(3)   Therefore God does not exist 

Many theists attempt to undermine this argument by attacking the veracity of premise two.  For example, William Lane Craig and William Alston argue that humans are not in an epistemic place to judge any act of evil as gratuitous since we cannot see the big picture of history.  For all we know, an act of seemingly gratuitous evil will result in a greater good years or even centuries from now, either in the life of the person who experienced the evil or in the life of another person in another country.  Our cognitive limitations should not be used as evidence that gratuitous evil exists.  At best we must remain agnostic on the question.

This is an appeal to the Greater-Good Defense, which argues that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting all evils—including those that appear gratuitous to us—such as using them to bring about some greater good that could not have been brought about apart from those evils.

In the latest issue of Philosophia Christi, Kirk R. MacGregor provides some reasons for thinking that this response to the evidential problem of evil is misguided.  Just because our cognitive and temporal limitations make it impossible for us to prove that any act of evil is truly gratuitous does not mean that gratuitous evil does not exist.  He argues that the belief that some evils are gratuitous is a properly basic belief.  For example, we do not believe that every time we are bitten by a mosquito or stub our two that these evils have some greater purpose or will be used to accomplish a greater good.  Such things make virtually no difference in our own lives, yet alone on the grand scheme of things.  Given the proper basicality of belief in gratuitous evil, MacGregor says the burden of proof is on those who would deny the existence of gratuitous evils, and to meet their burden of proof they must explain how every instance of gratuitous evil actually results in some greater good.  This is not possible, and thus the person who believes in the existence of gratuitous evil is prima facie justified in maintaining that belief, even given his cognitive and temporal limitations.

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Would you still serve God if there was no hell in which to be punished for your evil?  Would you still serve God if there was no heaven in which to be rewarded for your good?  Would your behavior change at all?

I would venture to say that most church-going Christians serve God, not out of a desire to be in relationship with God, but out of a desire to avoid hell.  If there was no hell, they would not serve God, or at least would not continue to live the way they do morally speaking.  While desiring to avoid hell is natural and a good motivator for initially deciding to serve God, it is a very poor motivator for continuing to serve God.

I don’t necessarily want you to respond in the comments section with your answers, but I do think this is something worth thinking about in the way of self-evaluation.

Update on 6/21: A new study appearing in the Public Library of Science journal, PLoS ONE, has evaluated crime rates involving 143,197 people in 67 countries over a span of 26 years and found that crime rates are lower in nations that believe in the possibility of some sort of divine punishment after death, and higher in nations that do not (or that only believe in divine rewards after death).

The next time you hear someone say they are not a Christian because there are too many hypocrites in the church, here are a handful of tactful ways to respond: 

  1. What do you mean by “hypocrite?” (You want to make the point that a hypocrite is not merely someone who is morally imperfect, but someone who says he believes X but purposely fails to practice X)
  2. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church.  Jesus told us there would be.  But Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite.  What do you think about Jesus?
  3. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church.  Jesus told us there would be.  But there are also genuine Christians who are following Jesus.  Why do you choose to let the hypocrites dictate your response to Christianity rather than the true followers of Jesus?
  4. What does that have to do with you?  Couldn’t Christianity still be true even if a lot of confessing Christians are bad people?  The question God is concerned with is not what others do, but what you believe and how you live.
  5. Are you saying that because other people fail to live up to their ideals you don’t have to even try?  
  6. If you can’t tolerate all the hypocrites in church, why not follow Jesus independently of a local church body—to avoid all of those immoral Christians? (This will get them to tell you the real reasons they are not a Christian) 

Do you have any more to add to the mix?

That was the headline of the Daily Mail.  While I am fully aware that not all conservative Christian teens practice abstinence, I was stunned at the idea that there is virtually no difference in the rates of premarital sex between Christians and non-Christians.  According to Relevant magazine, a 2009 study revealed that 80% of evangelicals between 18-29 years of age had sex, compared to 88% of their peers.

Do you find this statistic shocking?  Do you have reason to doubt the validity of these findings?  Assuming the stats are accurate, I’m not too surprised myself.  In a sex-crazed culture like our own, it takes a lot of moral fortitude to abstain from sex before marriage.  And when you couple that with a culture that discourages young adults from marriage until their late 20s or early 30s, it’s no wonder so many young Evangelicals are succumbing to this sin.

UPDATE: Kevin DeYoung provides some good reasons to trust the accuracy of this report.

People often talk about “struggling” with some particular sin.  What they want you to believe is that they are really trying to stop doing X, but keep being overcome by the sin despite their strong desire to the contrary.  It’s not their fault; sin made them do it!  While there is no question that we genuinely struggle with sinful desires, when we sin, we always sin by choice.  So the next time someone wants to make excuses for their sin by labeling it a struggle, call them on the carpet.  What they are really struggling with is the conviction they feel whenever they choose to sin.  To lessen the guilt they call it a “struggle,” and claim to be sin’s victim rather than its perpetrator.  Do they want to stop sinning?  But if one continues in the same sin, it is probably due to the fact that their desire to keep sinning is stronger than their desire to stop sinning.  None of us is forced to sin.  Paul said God will always provide a way of escape when we are tempted.  We sin by choice.  Let’s not try to kid ourselves or others by continuing in our sin and labeling it a “struggle.”

One way to avoid self-righteousness when your brother falls is to keep in mind that each of us is capable of the worst evil, because we are all equally fallen. That’s why Paul said, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal 6:1) and “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12).  See also 1 Cor 9:27.

Christians are often accused of being judgmental by non-Christians—and sometimes, even by fellow-Christians.  Indeed, it’s not uncommon to even hear non-Christians quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 against Christians: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” (even if they’ve never read a page from the Bible in their life!)  I am persuaded that both the church and the culture at large have failed to understand the Biblical teaching on judgmentalism.  Before I explain, let’s look at a few more Biblical passages often cited in support of non-judgmentalism:

1 Cor 4:3-5 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (ESV)

1 Cor 5:12-13 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (ESV) [talking about executing punishment]

James 4:11-12 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (ESV)

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In today’s society everyone seems to be hyper-sensitive to judgmentalism.  The minute you tell someone you disagree with something they are doing, you are accused of being judgmental.  Of course, it always escapes their notice that they are judging you for being judgmental, so they are guilty of both judgmentalism and hypocrisy!  But the problem runs deeper than mere self-contradiction.

As the term is commonly used today, judgmentalism is thought to be limited to expressions of moral disapproval of X, or attempts to correct some person P for doing X.  In reality, judgment involves both moral disapproval and moral approval.  Judgment requires that we distinguish what is right/good from what is wrong/evil.  Judgments are involved when you say X is good, as well as when you say X is bad.  Indeed, the only way to say some X is good is if you know what bad is, and know X is not that.  The only way to avoid making judgments is to make no moral distinctions whatsoever.  No sane person can do this, nor is this a worthy goal.  Moral judgments are indispensable to a healthy society.

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One of the objections against studying and using apologetics I often hear from fellow Christians is, “It doesn’t work.”  Why do they think this?  Because they learned a few evidences for the Christian faith, tried them out on unbelievers, and discovered that it didn’t make everyone immediately fall down on their face in repentance.  So, they concluded apologetics do not work.  If by “work” they mean successful 100% of the time in causing conversion, I would agree.  But surely this can’t be the standard by which we judge success.  If it is, then we would also have to deem the simple Gospel presentation a failure as well since the majority of people who hear it do not convert to Christianity.  Even Jesus failed to persuade the vast majority of all those He encountered.

The problem is not with the message/method/evidence, but with the heart of man.  According to Paul, unbelievers suppress the knowledge of God so they can continue in their moral rebellion (Romans 1).  Unbelief is primarily moral and volitional in nature, and only secondarily intellectual.  It should be no surprise, then, that intellectual arguments fail to persuade some people: they do not want to be persuaded.  As Winston Churchill once said, “Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”  And yet, rational arguments for the Christian faith can be instrumental in leading the open-hearted to faith in Christ.  Indeed, many former atheists can testify to the fact that apologetics “worked” to bring them to a belief in Jesus Christ.  Apologetics is no magic bullet, but it is a valuable tool in our evangelistic tool box.

Al Mohler has written a good piece on the doctrine of hell.  He details the steps by which the doctrine has become liberalized in many churches:

  1. It ceases to be discussed
  2. It is revised and retained in a reduced form
  3. It is subject to ridicule
  4. The doctrine is reformulated (annihilationism, etc.)

I would add a possible fifth step as well: The doctrine is denied.

This same pattern can be applied to the liberalization of any Biblical doctrine.  We must be on guard so as not to follow this pattern.  The best way to guard against it is to preach and teach on the full spectrum of Biblical doctrines, rather than focusing on a handful and ignoring others.  In general, what ceases to be taught ceases to be believed.

Mohler also had some challenging words on the tendency to lament, or apologize for the doctrine of hell.  As Mohler describes it, there are Bible believing Christians who will affirm that the Bible teaches the doctrine of hell, but admit they do not like the doctrine and wish it were not true.  I think we’ve all been there, and understandably so.  But Mohler raises some good points against this disposition:

What does this say about God? What does this imply about God’s truth? Can a truth clearly revealed in the Bible be anything less than good for us? … Apologizing for a doctrine is tantamount to impugning the character of God.  Do we believe that hell is a part of the perfection of God’s justice? If not, we have far greater theological problems than those localized to hell.

Indeed.  As Dennis Prager once noted, it would be the epitome of injustice if the evil had the same fate as the righteous.  If we love God, then we will love righteousness and justice.  And if we love righteousness and justice, then the existence of hell is not something we should lament.

hellWhy does somebody need to believe in Jesus to be saved?  Our stock answer is so that they will go to heaven, not hell.  While true in itself, it obscures the real message of the Gospel because it doesn’t explain why Jesus is necessary, only what the consequences are.  It makes God sound petty, and unbelievers are quick to point this out.

A common misconception among Christians and non-Christians alike is that people go to hell because they haven’t heard of Jesus.  This is not true.  People go to hell because they are guilty of sin.  The only way to escape hell is to be innocent of sin, and the only way to be innocent of sin is to accept Christ’s atonement.  Men are not even condemned because they don’t believe. They are condemned already.  Belief is the only thing that can save them from their condemnation.  Their failure to believe simply allows them to reach the destination they were already headed for.  People do not die because they don’t visit the doctor, but because they have a disease.  Our disease is sin.  We will die of this cancer unless we acknowledge that we are incapable of doing anything about it, and seek help from a powerful Doctor.

Other Christians believe people can only go to hell if they have heard of Jesus, and then reject Him.  Those who have not heard of Christ are innocent and should be saved because of their ignorance, providing they followed the revelation of God they did have.  This view is often called the “light doctrine.”  Such a perspective invalidates the Christian message.  It turns redemption on its head, making knowledge of Christ the cause of one’s damnation rather than their only hope of escaping sure judgment.  It presumes that humanity contracts a disease by visiting the doctor, rather than having the disease by nature.  Rest assured that humanity will not escape judgment because of their ignorance.  Even those who have not heard of Jesus have sufficient evidence to know of God’s existence/nature and seek after Him, but all fall short of this revelation and are deserving of judgment (Rom 1-3).  Without Jesus all would be lost.  Jesus is not the cause of anyone’s condemnation—they are condemned already.

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If you have ever wondered whether it was possible for Christ to sin, please see my completely updated article on this topic at the Institute for Biblical Studies.  For those of you just looking for a quick answer, the answer is no.  If you want to know why, read the article!

Many holiness-minded individuals fear the doctrine of grace by faith because they think it leads to antinomianism. I have no doubt that some have used grace as a pretext for sin, but they do so without the support of Scripture. Scripture is clear that the grace that saves is the same grace that teaches us to deny ungodliness (Titus 2:12), and empowers us for holiness (Romans 6:14). To calm the minds of grace-fearers, and to correct the minds of grace-abusers, let me offer the following medical analogy.

Sin is like a cancer. It destroys the good cells in our body, and eventually leads to death. To treat this deadly disease one must undergo chemotherapy (grace). But would anyone in their right mind willingly inject their body with cancerous cells simply because a treatment for the ensuing cancer is available? Of course not! So why would anyone intentionally sin simply because grace is available to treat it? The purpose of the New Covenant was not to provide us with a license to sin, but to provide us with grace that would not only wipe away our past transgressions, but give us the power to avoid future transgressions.

As opposed as I am to people using God’s name in useless ways such as an exclamation (“God!” or “Oh my God!”) or an expletive (“God d**n it!”), admittedly, this is not what Scripture means when it tells us not to take the name of the Lord in vain.


Read C. Michael Patton’s blog entry on this issue, particularly point #3. He makes it clear that while many of us would never think of saying “God d**n it,” we commonly take His name in vain without realizing it. Read it, and then think twice next time before you proclaim God told you such and such.

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