Some Sin Required

We all have aspects of reality which our worldview either does not fully answer, or we are uncertain about.  In Reconciling The Circularity, I shared my impression that the concept of reconciling real or apparent inconsistencies in the Bible presupposes there is a reconciliation, and additionally presupposes inerrancy.  Now I would like to discuss what I call the “mandatory” or “required” sin problem.  Whether the Christian Theist ascribes to a form of divine determinism, compatiblism, or libertarian concept of human agency (free will), the mandatory sin problem still appears to obtain.

Personally I subscribe to a weak form of compatiblism.  I think for the most part man has a libertarian-esque freedom to make decisions and act unfettered and uncompelled by God.  However God may, and does intervene whenever and however He sees fit to achieve His purposes.  How often and in what way is purely up to God and unknown to man.

  • Psalm 14:1-3 — The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.
  • Romans 3:9-10 — What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10as it is written,“THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE”
  • Romans 3:23 — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

The Bible is clear that no one is without sin.  There is no distinction between adults or children, all have sinned.  Since the Bible claims to contain God’s standard, our opinion as to what constitutes sin is rendered moot.  God’s standard is perfection in thought and deed.  The only person to remain morally perfect was Jesus (1 Peter 2:22).  But it would seem that in order for the Bible to be speaking the truth in these passages, every person must sin, and God potentially might have to intervene at some point and compel a man to sin.

The reason I believe this to be a problem, is because if God were in a position where He would have to compel sin, I — and I think most people — would consider this to be a malicious act, thus violating His perfect character.  But on any of the views of human agency, it would seem that, at least hypothetically, God might have to.

Here in lies my concern.  If man has even some semblance of freedom make the morally right or morally wrong decision in any given situation, then at least hypothetically, someone could go their entire life making the proper choices.  Put another way, someone, at every opportunity to do something morally wrong, could choose to do the morally right thing.  But if someone were to make every right decision, then the Bible, in respect to the verses claiming everyone has, does, and will sin is false.

This would put God in the position (hypothetically) to cause this “perfect” person to sin in some way — lest God’s Word be rendered false.  In this case, it is not man committing the sin of his own volition, but is rather compelled to do so by Divine fiat.  Therefore, God would punish man by judging him to hell for evil deeds of which he had no control — and doing so is not just (for example, if I forced my daughter to steal, then punished her for stealing).

This is not to say that someone ever will live a sin-free life.  Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it will happen. To me, the mere hypothetical possibility is what’s disconcerting.  I believe the nature of man is accurately described in the Bible, and that even if it were hypothetically possible, it is not actualizable in reality.   Everyone will inevitably sin on their own, of their own volition, and ultimately need a Savior.


  1. I don’t think it is possible for anyone not to sin because man is indeed born with a sin nature. Infants, and small children who do not understand the concept, in my belief do not have their sin held accountable to them until they reach an age wherein they have understanding that there is a God, etc.

    But there is no one capable of not having at least an angry thought, a lustful thought, an envious thought, etc, and even thoughts are sin. Everyone will sin so God will never have to force a person to sin.

    • I don’t think it is possible that it will happen, but it seems possible thay it could happen — hypothetically. If we have the ability at any given time in any given situation to choose not to commit the individual sin, then we could possibly choose not to sin at each opportinity.

      This is really a thought experiment not a debate of actualities.

  2. Marshall Art says:

    Not all of our choices are the result of serious consideration and deliberation. Many are more of the spur of the moment variety when the compulsion to simply act takes its natural course, moving us to an easy resolution of a situation that might not be the most moral or righteous if reviewed later. It is common to act without thinking or thinking deeply enough to cover all the bases.

    I also think the fact that we are sinners is merely a fact of our natures, not so much that we will consciously choose to sin. This sin nature makes even good actions sinful by comparison to God’s holiness, and verses such as Romans 3:23 may take this into account.

  3. John,
    I think you and I have discussed this before. My personal philosophy on “sin”, or the ability to be morally perfect, falls perfectly in line with what the bible says.
    I am a hard determinist- I think that who you are and what you will do given any situation is almost entirely determined by who you are and where you came from. That has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but it does say something about my general philosophy of human nature.
    When it comes to “sin”, and I hate that word because it implies that something could be morally virtuous and still wrong by fiat, I think that given the laws of determinism and the economics of reality- by its very definition “existing” means that you will be forced to make moral trade offs. Unless one assumes that they can live a life that positively impacts every single person, and every single thing, and uses no resources that could reasonably have been better used for the good of others- I think we are all guilty of moral culpability.
    Unlike most people I suppose, I don’t think that killing an intruder who seeks to murder your family is a moral good, for example, but merely a net moral good. The taking of a life is a moral wrong, but the act of doing so prevents a greater wrong. This example is drastic, but I don’t think there are many choices in this life that are entirely morally righteous. As such, we “sin” with nearly every choice we make. The goal of someone aiming for moral perfection is unattainable- you can merely strive for righteousness in action, where each deed causes the greatest good and the least harm (all the while not only willfully aiming for this but being correct in your assessments).

    Philosophically, I think one of the many things the bible did get right was that humans are going to “sin” and fall short of perfection. I also don’t think that point is very controversial, obscure, or cleverly hidden.

    • My whole issue really lies on potentials and hypotheticals, not really with how the endeavour would play out in reality. Given my worldview, I don’t think it is possible, given our nature, to go very long without committing a sin. Remember, this is foundationally built on the Christian worldview, the idea that man has fre agency, and is not forcefully compelled to sin. On the grand scheme of things, this is really an angels on a pin kind of discussion.

      I’m not sure I can accept a deterministic explanation. It doesn’t seem like you are talking about chemical determination, do I have that right? As if our decisions are a series of chemichal reactions of which we have no control. But rather given our life circumstances and up bringing, we make our decisions based on our background life teachings and experience, right?

      If that’s true, then it would seem no one would ever get out of “the hood” (for lack of a better term). It seems people are capable and regularly “break the cycle” all the time. Maybe you don’t even mean what I’m giving a counter example to, but you can address that if you want.

      But otherwise good acts and behaviors are deemed wrong by fiat all the time. Hugging, for example, is a positive sign of affection. But hugging the president can be wrong by fiat. Or feeding someone. But giving food to a prisoner when he is in court is wrong by fiat. I know these are silly examples, and not necessarily what you had in mind, but it seems like if we though long enough we could think of things which were wrong only by dictate. I gather you were thinking about the “trusty silly OT laws” i.e. mixing fabrics for ancient Israel. But I think a case could be made for why something like that in its proper context could be justified. But that is another discussion.

      • To address your first paragraph, what I am saying is similar to every philosophical discussion about free agency. Even if we assume humans have true “free will”, that does not mean that they can choose to do anything. Certainly I can’t exercise my free will and choose to flap my arms and fly – just because you choose to do something doesn’t mean it can be done. You might choose to be a millionaire, but that choice doesn’t guarantee it will be so. I think choosing to live without sin would be akin to choosing to hold all the wealth on earth, it is theoretically possible but otherwise impossible.

        As to your critique of determinism- and yes I am not referring to chemical determinism- if someone “breaks the cycle” that really says nothing about determinism. Someone in “the hood” is born with, or learns, a predisposition to see beyond their predicament- that person is the type of person who is going to seize upon the events that will happen in his life, and really those events are predetermined by events that were caused by previous decisions. Determinism is not hopelessness. It is the realization that we were never going to be the people that we are not. That doesn’t stop us from making “decisions” in the sense that we see our life as a series of choices- it is only that our choices are entirely decided before we encounter them. We just do those things we were going to do anyway, and we essentially have the illusion of choice.
        I have had this discussion with lots of people, and every one of them has some immediate objection to it. But I can’t see how it might be false- and at the same time I can’t see how it might be falsified.

        To your last paragraph, I think you are mistaking something being prohibited with something being wrong, which is exactly the same problem I have with sin……

        • Well, I would say free will is part and parcel of making decisions, not being able to act on them, per se. You could decide to flap your arms, that is a function of your mind. Actually taking flight would be a function of your body. So I would see a distinction. Same with deciding to be a millionaire. Actually becomming one involves events outside your mind and your ability to decide. Having a free will doesn’t necessarily entail actualizing your decision.

          As far as the last paragraph, I suppose thats a long discussion, probably centering on definitions and terminology. I do see the difference between prohibited and morally wrong. Admittedly, right after posting my comment, that popped into my mind. I do think I could think of an example if took some time. But you’re right, my examples were poor examples of what I was trying to prove.

          But it seems like your determinism explanation (I realize it is heavily reduced for comment form) is unfalsifiable. For example, if I wanted ice cream, but then changed my mind and wanted candy, but then changed it back, it was determined to happen like that. Just like your comments, and mine, which means you don’t hold your positions due to rational thought and reflection, but rather because you have no choice. So, there’s no reason to abandon my opinions in favor of yours, a) because I can’t. B) because there’s no reason to. But again, your determinism is like Dawkins design. It looks like design, acts like design, feels like design, experiences like design but isn’t. How do you get past unfalsifiability, or it doesn’t really matter? I don’t mean that snarky, either.

  4. I readily admit that my feelings on determinism are unfalsifiable. As such, I don’t hold onto them with the same level of certitude that I hold to things I do find both falsifiable and well evidenced. I think determinism is quite likely, and I am open to looking at alternatives- yet at the moment I consider myself a determinist because if you ask me to speculate on the matter that is where my best evidence lies.
    I do disagree with your summary of why you cannot abandon your opinions, and I’m sure you can understand why. Determinism is not necessarily about being prohibited from making choices, but being prohibited from making choices that you would never have made anyway. This seems self-evident when we talk about choices that don’t appear to us to be choices-like whether you are going to steal a chocolate bar or pay for it. John Barron does not consider stealing, for him, to be a real choice. He would not even consider it. Or choices that are based on very simple criteria- like whether, given a choice between three flavours of ice cream- pralines and cream, mint chip, or tiger tail- and you hate mint and are allergic to nuts. I’m saying we can extend the idea that choices are predetermined to choices that are not obvious- like whether I’m going to write you a response to your last comment or not. It seems to me that the choice to do this, and it really does seem like a choice, was made before you hit the “Post Comment” button. I am the kind of person who is going to react to your words as much as you were going to react to my words as well. I was going to post this comment, before I even read your response. I have called this a “causal continuum” when talking to other people.
    If you were to come to believe in determinism, for example, you would do so because you are the kind of person who would be intrigued by it, and you are the kind of person who by various means was going to meet me online, and I am the person who would respond to this post- that you were determined to write- in a way that would bring up the subject. You are the type of person who will read my responses and find that they make sense. Or not. (and that is determined too!)
    To quickly discuss your Dawkins analogy, I think that this is entirely different. When Dawkins speaks about the illusion of design, he makes falsifiable predictions and takes into account the fact that there is direct evidence that contradicts design. His assertion that life is not designed in the sense that we use the word “design” doesn’t to me seem entirely similar, other than both deal with how we perceive our world. I’d gladly discuss this tangent at some other time.

    • Well, at the least I could say is the determinism you hold is certainly consistent with atheism. In fact, I’d say strict chemical and (illusory) agent causation would be necessary on atheism. I don’t think actual free agency can exist in a strictly material world.

      But as to the Dawkins reference, I wasn’t really trying to discuss his statements as much as how it is analogous to your view. It looks like we have free agency, it feels like we have free agency, we experience free agency, but it’s not, it’s all an illusion.

      But I also don’t think free agency requires that you would choose differently, but that you have an actual opportunity to. I could choose to steal, but the fact that I wont, or even don’t consider it as a viable option to obtain a chocolate bar doesn’t take away from the fact that the option is there and available. Rest assured, I do see the point you are making. I just think it is a view over complicated by concepts. it’s certainly fun to think about.

      • Really John?
        I actually think that determinism is as close to a theological view as any that I hold to. When you think about the idea that even if you have “free will”- that God can and does know how everything will play out- that seems like a tacit admission of determinism. That God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, that seems like an encroachment into an alternate deterministic outcome. I actually dislike my views on determinism because I fell that they are too heavily peppered by my former theistic views. I dislike them, but I put weight in them because they seem at least as true as any alternative I have been given, and they do seem to help me make “decisions”, in whatever sense I can use that word.

        • God is outside of time and therefore sees what happens in the past at the same time he sees the future. Knowing what will happen is not the same as ordaining it to happen.

          IF you read the entire case of Pharaoh you will see that it first speaks of him hardening his own heart. When later God hardened his heart, it doesn’t mean God forced him to harden his heart but rather it means the actions of God caused the Pharaoh to harden his heart even more, and in that way God was responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart – Pharaoh made the choice to harden his heart even more when he saw how God worked against him. He could have at any time chosen to relent and let Israel go.

          How can you make any decisions freely if you are programmed to make them?

  5. So what causes determinism? Why isn’t it the same for everyone? When you get down to it, it’s just an outhouse philosophy with no science behind it, with no rational thought behind it. It is just navel-gazing.

    • Glenn,
      I’m not sure at what point you felt like I was presenting determinism as a scientifically certain or scientifically evidenced theory. Whatever that point was, where you felt I was doing that, try to go back to that point and pay better attention. I have said at every single juncture that I do not consider determinism to be any more than a logically contingent possibility. That is not to say that it is true, but that it makes the best sense to me given the evidence and philosophy at hand.
      It is one area of my epistemology where I can honestly say that I hold an opinion without enough evidence to be comfortably certain. It might be the closest I would come to “faith”, in whatever sense you give that word. I would not even say that- since I am not likely to hold onto my belief in determinism in light of better evidence to the contrary, and I wouldn’t dismiss evidence that seemed to contradict it.

      To answer your first two questions: causation causes determinism. One action inevitably results in another. That should seem relatively simple to grasp in the general if not in the specific.
      It isn’t the same for everyone because everyone isn’t the same, or even has the same experiences. I think that if you could isolate all the variables, then essentially you could predict the future with accuracy. Since we can’t do that, we see our existence as at least partially chaotic and our will as free (which in some sense it is).

      • I understood you to say your view wasn’t scientific, but I was covering the whole concept of determinism beyond your personal version.

        A cause may indeed determine an outcome: if I were to run a motorcycle head on into a wall it is pretty much determined that I will destroy the bike and have serious injuries. However, the cause itself was a result of a free choice and not pre-determined. You still have a problem as to where the cause came from. Causes can be from choice or from natural occurrences (tornadoes, e.g.), but the outcome is not determined to any degree of certainty; after all, a tornado may or may not cause damage or injury, depending on where it hits.

        There is nothing determined in human actions.

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