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Editor’s note: This post provides an overview of the theology studies of harmartiology with applications pointing to biblical counseling. In this series of posts, Terry Enns provides an overview of 10 different areas of systematic theology. This post was excerpted from a message at our Annual Conference. You can listen to the message here. Read also the other posts in this series:

Having just overviewed anthropology (the doctrine of man), let us also consider a closely related doctrine: hamartiology (doctrine of sin).

A Definition of Sin

When we talk about sin, we are thinking of a definition like this: Sin is a willful transgression of the law of God that intentionally misses God’s standard as a result of one’s rebellious dissatisfaction with God. Sin is often defined simply as “missing the mark,” like an archer shooting at a target and missing the bull’s-eye.  And while the Greek word hamartia does mean, “miss the mark,” it also has the idea of intentionality in it.  That is, we intentionally and willfully miss God’s mark. So sin is not just missing the mark. Sin says, “I don’t want that mark. I disregard the target of God’s righteousness and God’s will. I repudiate that. I want this other target and standard of my own choosing and making.” Sin is a willful rejection of God’s standard, and that causes us to miss the mark of obedience to God.

Tim Keller adds to that when he writes, “Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry.” You’re living for something other than God.

The nature of all men is sinful from the moment of birth; so the moment that someone is born, he is at that moment classified as a sinner. The quintessential passage for this truth is Ephesians 2:1-3 which says, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” That is what every person is at the moment of birth. All people are sinners, and sin renders people helpless to change themselves.

The Consequence of Sin

Because of their sin, sinners are alienated from God and as a result seek fulfillment in the world’s system. The implication for this (and this is the way counselees come to us) is that Christ will not be seen as a solution to man’s problems. So someone who is living under the influence of his sin and living under the influence of the world is not going to say Christ is the answer. And yet He is the answer.  Further, the sinner will try to provide substitutes that promise satisfaction (which they are unable to ultimately do). And then finally, the sinner will pursue his felt needs instead of his real needs. That’s the way people are going to come to you as their counselor. Our objective is to help them see the fallacy of what they are pursuing and to see the hope that is in the gospel.

Sin also leads to many other problems. There are feelings of guilt, shame, depression, unhappiness, and physical problems — a variety of worldly syndromes that we call complicating problems. That means that people don’t sin in isolation. If someone is feeding and cultivating and holding onto sin in one area of his life, he is compromising his integrity and it’s going to flow over into other areas of his life as well. So we say that sinners never sin in isolation; all men sin in multiple different ways, and we want to address all of those problems with our counselees. We want to say, “Well you have a problem with anger, so let’s fix your anger. But there’s something driving the anger, and that anger is overflowing into other kinds of things as well. And let’s also address those.” If a man is angry, he’s not just blowing his top; he’s also probably exhibiting all kinds of other selfish and prideful behavior. If he’s angry, he is probably not treating his wife with respect and honoring her; he’s probably not leading her in love. We want to address those kinds of issues as well.

The Hope for Sinners

Is there hope? And is there hope for the Christian who sins? Yes! One hope for the Christian who sins is that our sins do not affect our legal standing with God. Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you’ve been baptized by the Holy Spirit into Christ, if you’ve been identified with Christ, there is no condemnation. There is no wrath of God on you. You cannot experience the wrath of God. Friends, that is hopeful because unbelievers aren’t the only ones who sin.

Believers still have remaining sin, but that sin does not affect or change our legal standing with God. Our sin, however, does disrupt our fellowship with God, and we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30). If we remain unrepentant in our sin, we incur the fatherly discipline of God. And yet our sin is redeemable and is able to be used as an instrument of growth by means of appropriating afresh the truths of the gospel.

Understanding the problem of sin will help us understand the next topics of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and Christology (the doctrine of Christ) which we’ll look at in the next post.

Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).  In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.

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