Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Nature and Punishment of Sin (1)

Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of sin consists of four parts: 1) the origin of sin; 2) the spread of sin; 3) the nature of sin; and 4) the punishment of sin. In my previous articles, we considered the topics of the origin and spread of sin. In this and a subsequent article, we will consider the topics of the nature and punishment of sin. With these topics, the main contours of the biblical doctrine of sin will have been covered, and we will be in a position to take up the doctrine of salvation in Christ.

Sin as lawlessness

Although it is common to speak of sin in human life as a kind of “hereditary depravity,” this language does not do justice to the nature of sin. Unlike heredity, which varies from one person to the other, sin is “common to and the same in all humans” (RD 3.127). By virtue of Adam’s transgression as the covenant representative of the human race, all of his posterity are reckoned by God to have “the same guilt, the same impurity, and the same perverseness” as Adam himself. While sin was only revealed in germinal form through Adam’s transgression, the sin of Adam was typical of all human sin as it becomes increasingly manifest throughout the history of the human race since the fall.

In the history of the church, a variety of explanations of the nature and source of Adam’s original sin and disobedience have been advanced. Some theologians have argued that the root of Adam’s sin was an unholy pride, a kind of rebellion against God as Creator by a creature bent on asserting his own rights against God. In this explanation of sin, the source of human disobedience is the proud self-exaltation of the creature who is unwilling to be subject to and dependent on God for all that he is and has. Others have suggested that the root of Adam’s sin was “doubt and unbelief,” which gave rise to pride and rebellion against God. According to this explanation of the nature of Adam’s sin, the source of all human rebellion is unbelief and doubt regarding the truthfulness of God’s Word. Once Adam doubted the Word of God, he began to act contrary to the stipulations of God’s law.

Bavinck acknowledges the truth in these diverse explanations of the nature and origin of Adam’s transgression, but nonetheless maintains that the “first sin contains within itself a variety of sins and was in principle a transgression of all God’s commandments” (RD 3.128). Rather than attenuating the nature of sin as it was already manifest in the first transgression of Adam, we should acknowledge the complexity and diversity of sin in all of its expressions. Sin will ever remain elusive and perplexing, however much its character and expressions be described and characterized in the light of scriptural teaching.

The complexity of sin is evident in the diversity of biblical terms that are used to describe its nature. According to Bavinck, the fact that such a variety of terms is used in Scripture to describe the nature of sin testifies to its “appalling character and many-sided development” (RD 3.129). In the Old Testament, the following descriptions of sin are especially prominent: 1) missing the mark, deviating from the God-ordained destiny and purpose of human life in the presence of God; 2) injustice or twistedness, departing from the proper or right direction laid out for human beings as God’s image-bearers; 3) godlessness or deviance from life in service to God; 4) guilt or offense in the sense of liability for violating God’s holy law; 5) unfaithfulness or infidelity, a treacherous unwillingness to be loyally devoted to God; 6) falseness or acting contrary to the way of truth; 7) folly or the failure to live in the awareness of God’s presence and the goodness of his will; and 8) evil, the antithesis of God’s goodness and benevolence toward all his creatures. A similar abundance of terms is used in the New Testament, confirming the rich array of sin’s manifestations or expressions. Sin is described as “deviation, injustice, disobedience, violation, apostasy, lawlessness, guilt” (RD 3.129). Each of these diverse descriptions captures a dimension or facet of sin, though none of them is sufficient to provide a complete account of the essential nature of sin.

If there is any feature that binds all of these diverse expressions together, it is the basic idea of sin as disobedience against the holy law of God. Sin is not simply a violation of human custom, which may or may not conform to God’s will. Nor is sin to be defined simply as the violation of human conscience, since the conscience is not always adequately informed or conformed to the law of God. Human custom and the dictates of conscience may be legitimate subjective norms for human conduct, but they remain subordinate to the objective revelation of God’s will for human conduct that is given in his moral law. The most satisfying definition of sin is that it is essentially lawlessness. Or, if I may use the traditional language of the children’s version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Throughout the course of the history of special revelation, God made his holy will known through the promulgation(s) of the law, which in summary requires perfect love for God and selfless love for neighbor. While the rudiments of the law, especially the requirements of the second table of the law as it was revealed to Moses in the Decalogue, continue to be written on the hearts of all human beings, the revealed law of God provides a more fulsome and clear disclosure of God’s moral will (RD 3.134). By the measure of the revealed law of God, all human beings are made conscious of their sin and unworthiness before God.

But it is not only through the law that sin is exposed and made known. In the revelation of the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the nature and consequence of human sin as lawlessness stands out “all the more darkly”: “the law remains the source of our knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20; 7:7), but when that law is read in light of the gospel, sin becomes manifest in all its hideousness” (RD 3.135). Both through the law and the gospel, God clearly reveals sin for what it is. Sin is the failure to give to God the perfect love and devotion of which he alone is worthy, and the failure to give to others the love and devotion that they deserve as image-bearers of God. Only through the obedience of Christ, who obeyed the precepts (active obedience) and the penalties (passive obedience) of the law, are sinners able to be restored to favor with God. The gospel of the work of Christ as Mediator shows the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the great cost that was required for the redemption of God’s people.

Sin as privation

After defining sin as fundamentally lawlessness, Bavinck turns to the difficult topic of the nature and reality of sin. If sin is essentially transgression and rebellion against God’s holy will, how can it be accounted for or explained in terms of what it is? In the history of Christian theology, two different answers have often been given to the question of what sin is as lawless rebellion against God. Some theologians have answered this question by viewing sin as a kind of substance. Others have answered this question by viewing sin as a kind of privation or defect. Though neither of these explanations is satisfactory, Bavinck regards the second to be closer to the truth.

In respect to the first of these explanations, the doctrine of God as Creator requires that sin not be viewed as some-thing or as a substance of some kind. Sin as rebellion against God may not explained by tracing it “to a principle of wrath in God (Böhme) or to an evil power beside God (Mani), to some kind of ‘stuff’ such as matter (hulee) or flesh (sarx) (Plato, the Jews, Flacius, and others)” (RD 3.136). All of these explanations and descriptions of the nature of sin ascribe improperly a kind of substantial reality to sin. They also have an unfortunate tendency to justify the presence and reality of sin within God’s creation. In some of them, there is an inevitability about sin that deprives it of its character as lawlessness. Sin is viewed as an entity that has true existence, though it was neither created nor caused by God. Against this first explanation, Bavinck insists that sin is no-thing. It has no being or existence from itself that stands alongside the being or existence of all that God originally created good. Sin is radically parasitical upon God’s creation. It represents a distortion and deflection from the good. Whatever explanation may be given for the reality of sin as lawless rebellion against God, it may not be one that grants sin the status of being a kind of necessary substance or stuff, which is an indispensable part of the greater reality of creation. The Christian view of the world is thoroughly theistic and stands opposed to every form of pantheism that includes even sin (and God himself) as part of a greater and necessary world that must be what it is.

The second explanation, which speaks of sin as a privation or defect of being, is closer to truth. Since the time of the church father Augustine, theologians have maintained that sin “has to be understood and described neither as an existing thing nor as being in things that exist but rather as a defect, a deprivation, an absence of the good, or as weakness, imbalance, just as blindness is a deprivation of sight” (RD 3.136). In this understanding of sin, it is recognized that all created being is good, and that evil must be a defection or corruption of the created nature of things. Sin and evil are not created things, but represent a “vice or defect of nature.” While this explanation of sin properly refuses to grant it legitimacy as a facet of the created order, Bavinck acknowledges that it nonetheless does not adequately describe the power and working of sin in human life and history. In the final analysis, it seems insufficient to describe sin merely as privation or defect. For sin is “not a mere lack, pure nonbeing, but an active and corrupting principle, a dissolving, destructive power” (RD 3.137). When opposing the Manichaen doctrine of the equal ultimacy of good and evil, Christian theologians need to use the language of privation to maintain the essential goodness of all that God created. In this way, sin and evil are not placed alongside the goodness of creation and all created things, as though they were a parallel kind of reality. But this does not mean to deny that sin is an active power of the will that deprives human beings of the fullness of life for which they were created. To speak of sin as privation means that it is not a substance, though it is an “activity . . . just as the limp of a cripple is not the absence of walking but a defective kind of walking” (RD 3.137–38).

Dr. Cornelis Venema
is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.