Theological Primer for Counselors: Doctrine of Sin

We continue our brief series covering the ten basic categories of theology and relating them to our walk with the Lord and to our personal ministry of the Word of God to one another. Today, let’s think about the doctrine of sin (hamartiology), its nature, and what it means that we are “totally depraved.”

Sin Is Defiance

Relative to counseling it is crucial for us to have a biblical understanding of the nature of sin, especially its inward power. In other words, we must not merely deal with the outward manifestations of sin, though they must be confronted, but with the inner rebelliousness of sin and its motivations. Sin is willfulness. When God created Adam and Eve for His glory, He had intimate fellowship with them and provided that the enjoyment of this relationship would continue only within the sphere of obedience to His commands (Isaiah 43:7; Genesis 2:7–25; 3:8–24). When our first parents sinned, they chose to do the opposite of what had been commanded them; that is, they acted in willful independence of their Creator. Thomas Schreiner is correct when he writes, “sin is first and foremost a rejection of the supremacy of God and his lordship over our lives.” Sin shows its defiant nature by actively resisting God’s demand for obedience.

Sin Is Self-Centeredness

Sin is not only willful independence from the Creator, but it is also utter self-centeredness. The human heart demands its own way, and demands it now, regardless of the consequences its choices may bring on itself, or others. But it is not merely inconsiderate of others; sin also makes the sinner cruel. For example, once Adam and Eve dethroned God, it was not long before sin displayed its cruelty. Their firstborn son, Cain, envied his brother’s righteousness and his acceptance with God and, in anger against God and man, first murdered Abel in his heart, and then carried out his desire by literally taking his brother’s life (Genesis 4:4–8). This explains why the Apostle John used Cain’s sin as a contrast to biblical love, which leads us not to hate others, but to lay down our lives sacrificially for their good (1 John 3:11–16). It also explains why Jesus exalted the two “love commandments” above all others when he answered the inquiring lawyer, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). There is a sense in which we may say that, if we would always love God and others perfectly, we would never sin. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

Total Depravity

Man’s autonomous heart is enslaved to his depravity. When we say man is depraved, we mean that he is continually under the influence of sin. And when we say that he is totally depraved, we mean that sin has negatively affected every aspect of man’s being: intellect, emotions, and will, leaving him profoundly sinful at the very core of his being from the moment of conception. “Total depravity means that sin infects all of what a human is.” No part of man is left untainted. In other words, it is his nature to sin. Sin is what man does best. Sin is more than a choice: it is also the powerful influence or magnetic pull behind the choice, which holds the sinner in voluntary bondage. Del Fehsenfeld, Jr. writes, “The problem with sin is first it thrills, but then it kills. It blinds and binds its victim.” Israel’s King David understood this all too well when he confessed his adultery to God: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being” (Psalm 51:5–6). When the prophet Jeremiah confronted Judah’s sin, he said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.” But he went on to ask, “Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). In other words, not only is man’s heart corrupt, but also its corruption is accompanied by blindness to the depth of its own self-centeredness.

Total depravity is sometimes called total inability, since man’s bondage to his corrupt nature has rendered him unable to do anything in his own power to remedy his extreme spiritual problem. Apart from Jesus Christ, man is helpless, dead in sin, and left alone to lustfully indulge the desires of his flesh and mind (Romans 5:6; Ephesians 2:1, 3). As a result, natural (unconverted) man does not understand the things of God and has no innate desire to know them (1 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 3:11). Only a God of grace and power can redeem such a person. In order for conversion to take place, the sinner must be quickened to spiritual life by regeneration. Regeneration is the supernatural imparting of spiritual life to the sinner’s heart by the Holy Spirit alone, resulting in a spiritually dead person being brought to life in Christ (Ephesians 2:1; Romans 3:10–18; 5:6; Colossians 2:13).

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