Admittedly, we theologians can sometimes be annoying.
We often nit-pick over just the right way of phrasing a particular doctrine—and to non-academics especially, the habit evokes images of Hermione Granger pedantically correcting her classmates: “It’s Leviōsa, NOT Leviosar.”
Behind this concern, however, is a belief that language matters, and some words are simply better than others when gesturing toward Christian truth.
Case in point: “sin nature.”
More than once lately, I’ve read a book by a major evangelical publisher that makes reference to the allegedly foundational belief that all humans possess a “sin nature.” This claim is then taken to be so universally accepted—so basic to Christian theology—that it does not merit any evidence, explanation, citation, or supporting argument.
Our “sin nature” is taken to be a “Duh doctrine”—except it’s not.
The problematic phrase is partly the fault of contested translation in the original NIV (corrected in 2011), which rendered “flesh” (sarx) as “sinful nature.” Admittedly, Paul’s use of sarx is not easy to boil down for first-time readers. But the fact remains that neither Scripture nor the vast majority of Christian tradition ever claims that humanity has something called a “sin nature”–even as they remain insistent that our sin problem is indeed catastrophic.
AGAINST GOD AND NATURE
Tom McCall has a helpful critique of this phrase within his book-length treatment of the doctrine of sin, Against God and Nature (here). McCall is clear that all humans, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. And he offers a robust account of original sin that would make even a strict Calvinist nod gravely in approval. We can’t save ourselves. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). Pelagius was wrong.
But McCall also explains why it is problematic to assert that humans have something called a “sin nature.” Parts of the argument are too technical for a brief blog post, but others deserve attention outside of academia–since that’s where the phrase often appears.
Chiefly, to speak of all humans having a “sin nature” implies that sin is a concrete substance rather than a twisting or corruption of something good. To speak of our universal “sin nature” makes sin sound like a constitutional part of our anatomy—like a heart or brain—a physical thing that all humans have by virtue of being members of the fallen human race.
Unfortunately, this causes big problems for Christian theology.
It smacks of Gnostic heresy to imply that some constitutional part of our shared humanity is inherently sinful. That would seem to mean that at least one of the following is true:
God authored sin or our sin nature.
Sin or a sin nature existed eternally.
Satan created this sin nature and placed it within us.
Christianity has long rejected all these options while maintaining that humans are indeed enslaved to sin in ways that require God’s gracious rescue. To disavow the concept “sin nature” is not therefore to reject concepts like original sin or even total depravity. On those points, Christians have long held that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves.
That’s why someone as conservative as the late, great J. I. Packer (the OG of kind-hearted Calvinism) wrote that the “widespread but misleading line of teaching” regarding a “sin nature” should be rejected. Better options include the language of human fallenness, original sin, depravity, or as my Aussie comrade Michael Bird suggests: “‘suckiness’ unto death.”
In saying all this, I am at all not implying that those speaking of our “sin nature” are somehow unwitting Gnostics. Far from it! In fact, they surely think they are uttering the same doctrine of fallenness that Christians have held throughout the centuries. They’re just wrong.
In other words, it’s “leviosa”—even if Hermione’s tone can be a bit annoying.
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How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?
With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.
But there’s a catch.
In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.
For this reason,
well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.
RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM
Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”
When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.
Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.
As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.
BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE
Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.
And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.
TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN
In this post, however, I want to address two things:
How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
How that connects to racism in America.
In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.
Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.
What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.
As McCall rightly notes:
Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].
For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.
By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.
More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.
In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”
That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:
18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.
PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS
Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”
In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.
To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:
“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).
The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).
In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.
But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?
THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN
Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.
As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.
Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)
This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.
In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.
“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”
Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”
While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?
After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.
Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.
None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)
To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.
Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.
As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:
To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.
Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.
When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.
For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.
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