WHAT IS SIN? PART 3
By Rev. Ted Pike
27 Feb 14
Editor's Note: You can hear the audio of this Bible study under the same title at Truthtellers.org.
(Be sure to read What is Sin? Part 1 and What is Sin? Part 2)
Let's consider some historic errors concerning sin. The prevailing definition of sin in mainline evangelical Christianity is Calvinistic. It is derived from the Augustinian (Catholic) view which was influenced by Gnosticism.
In the first through fourth centuries A. D. a mystical, pseudo-religious cult developed, largely among intellectuals in Mediterranean lands, called Gnosticism (from gnosis, meaning “knowledge,” or “understanding”). Authorities such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Jewish Encyclopedia, and others are quick to state that Gnosticism was invented by Jews. Its pantheistic eastern theology is similar to that of Hinduism and Buddhism, but especially the Jewish Kabbalah. The Jews inherited the cabalistic tradition that came out of Babylon in the century or two before Jesus was born. Alfred Edersheim, perhaps the greatest Jewish and also Christian expert on the history of the Jews, candidly asserts that esoteric cabalistic traditions existed in the centuries before Jesus among the proto-Pharisaic rabbis who came to Palestine from Babylon. In the decades after Christ, as recounted in the Book of Acts, there was a concerted effort by the Pharisees of Jerusalem to destroy Christianity. It is no accident that the ancient church fathers were united in pointing to the Jews as originators of virtually all the great heresies of the early church.
Like most pagan doctrines, Gnosticism was divided. There was a philosophical half which appealed to the high-minded, ascetic, and theologically inclined. But there also was a side which appealed to the masses, as in Buddhism and Hinduism. It provided a pantheon of divinities and angels the people could relate through prayers, offerings, and festivals. We will concern ourselves with the first: the philosophical and theological division of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism seemed to glorify God. It said God, as the ultimate “gnosis,” is so far above this terrestrial, defiled, lowly world that we cannot even say anything about Him. He is ineffably holy and transcendent, above intelligence and even morality.To the Gnostics, God is beyond comprehension. This appealed to ascetic and high-minded people, such as the brilliant church father Origen who slept on rough wooden boards to chastise his flesh.
Gnosticism said the whole world, being material and not spiritual, is evil. This includes our fleshly humanity. We are intrinsically evil not because of moral decisions but because we exist in a human body. As long as we live in this evil world and body, we will be torn by every kind of passion, lust, desire, and attachment.
The apostle Paul does instruct Christians to mortify the deeds of the flesh and bring our bodies under subjection to Christ. Christian/Gnostic teachers in and out of the church quoted him as teaching in Romans 7 that, despite the Christian’s best efforts to rise above his “evil flesh,” he remains “wretched” and “carnal, sold under sin.” Largely as a result of Gnostic twisting of Paul's words during the second through fourth centuries A.D., a horde of young people left the church, public life, and marketplace of the ancient world (where souls needed to hear the Gospel and be redeemed from sin). They wandered in the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, often living in caves. They tried to get rid of the “evil flesh” and ascend to purest contemplation of God alone. Such asceticism led to the monastic system of the Roman Catholic Church. The Gnostic idea that sex is evil led to celibacy of nuns and priests, who also believed that those who separate themselves from the world in a monastic or ascetic way are going to have a better chance of pleasing God and escaping purgatory. Purgatory teaches that possibly eons of trials may be necessary to purge us from sin before we are sufficiently qualified to enter heaven. This is a very great error.
The idea that the flesh is evil and we are bound to our evil flesh as long as we live in this world is a fundamental of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. If you talk to most Calvinists and say, "We are not in chains to our evil flesh. We can make a clear decision to exalt Jesus as absolute Lord of our lives. His blood at Calvary empowers us to put down the flesh and come into a state of complete loyalty to Him that excludes sin," the Calvinist will describe you as a “sinless perfectionist.” They will ask, "But doesn't John say in I John 1:8 that if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us?"
Yes, John does say that. But he also abundantly asserts throughout the rest of the book that, “whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not." (1 John 5:18; See also 1 John 3:3-10; 4:12, 17; 5:4, 5) Similarly, they reply, "Doesn't Paul describe himself in Romans 7 as torn between the flesh and the spirit, crying out, "Oh, wretched man, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Calvinists agree with Gnostics that we are caught in the wretchedness of sin and only death will free us from the inevitability of sinning every day in thought, word, and deed.
In reality, John in I John 1:8 identifies with sinful man in evasion of the fact of their sinfulness, something of which the Holy Spirit labors to convince the human heart. John is not describing such as normal Christianity. Similarly, in Romans 7 Paul describes himself as double-minded and wretched before the grace of Jesus came to him. Yet Calvinists describe his rhetorical "flashback" to a previous life as depicting the normal life of the "sinning saint."
Suffice it to say that Gnosticism introduced into Christianity great error about what sin is and the nature of our bodies and their relationship to our spirits. Unfortunately, both Catholicism and Calvinism perpetuate such confusion, denying the clarity of understanding of countless Christians over the centuries regarding the Biblical definition of sin. This clarity is essential for fullest maturity and victory in the Christian life.