The Reformed tradition has always contained a virulent idea of sin. Having entered the human condition by “original sin,” sin renders human existence both tragic and miserable and takes on a life of its own.

Most often the tradition regards sin as the human transgression of God’s covenant which represents God’s active will for every human society and individual.

Having sinned once, a person compounds the simple sin by rationalizing the behavior, typically: “I didn’t do anything so bad; I’ll do better next time.” The first part fails to take God’s will seriously. The second part fixes attention on doing more exactly what the covenant requires. Both parts gloss over the sin and its effects, justify the action, and set up a trap from which there is no human way out. Henceforth the sinner either sinks into gross and overt sins by ignoring the covenant altogether or becomes more sinful by trying to attain a self–sufficient goodness that comes from merely doing the works of the covenant. Attention to the covenant (and to the sinner’s accomplishments) replaces attention to the covenant maker, God, and the harder a sinner tries to be good according to the covenant, the more sinful the person becomes.

A person’s first sin makes the person a sinner. But the trap puts the sinner into a condition of sin that leads to constant sinning with every thought, word, and deed. The sinner is not all bad, just never all good; and sinners alone or in society cannot discern clearly which part is which, since the good and the bad are intermingled. Every action of the sinner is at least partially skewed, no matter how well intentioned—the doctrine of total depravity.

Such sin perverts the good things God provides, none of which are intrinsically evil. The most notable items perverted are the God–given covenant, the sinner’s own thinking–willing–acting capacities, and the larger world of nature. As a perversion of the good, sin lodges in certain focal points of human outlook, behavior, and relationship. Most often mentioned are pride (self–worth turned to ambition, power, fame), desire (become self–serving in sex, money, self–indulgence), truth (turned to ideology or unreality), freedom (independence without relationship or responsibility), obedience (as blind loyalty, disobedience), and faith (as an end in itself, unbelief). The list could be lengthened indefinitely.

Surrounded by sin and sin’s effects, the sinner takes sin to be normal and natural for human life. The awareness of sin comes to sinners when God’s grace breaks in, particular grace to particular people. Grace gives people the heart to see their lives as God sees them, loved and upheld by God but at the same time deformed and unworthy of love. Reformed piety builds on this dynamic of grace and sin, sin and grace beginning with the move from grace to sin.

Different views of sin correspond with views of the atonement. For the substitutionary atonement, wherein Jesus Christ on the cross takes upon himself the punishment due humans for their sins (forgives the debt, suffers the loss, pays the price), sin is disobedience, a moral misdeed, a violation of the covenant or some relational code. For the classical theory of atonement, wherein Jesus Christ defeats death by dying on the cross, occupying the space of death and transforming death into the gateway to life, sin in its extreme form is death (“the last enemy to be defeated”); 1 Cor. 15:26; cf. 15:56; Heb. 2:14–15), both physical and spiritual. For the moral influence theory of atonement, wherein Jesus Christ taught how to live a transformed life before God and exemplified that life in his own full humanity, sin is an insufficient consciousness of God reflected in imperfect understanding, ignorance, bad attitudes, psychological maladjustments, and/or the breakdown of basic relationships.

The three views of sin suggest different levels of scope and concern. As imperfect God–consciousness, sin pertains to the inner, relational life of the human both individually and collectively. As moral misdeed, sin entails the behavior of the whole person outwardly and socially as well as inwardly and individually. As victory over death, sin involves the continuing problem and impact of evil, rooted in nature as well as in human life.

Calvin and Barth successfully blended all three views of sin and atonement. Other Reformed Christians, however, have compartmentalized sin in one view held singly, each one competing with the other two. In the late twentieth century, sin is regarded variously as individuals’ private moral misdeeds (emphasis on substitutionary atonement; seventeenth to twentieth century), the realm of the inner person and one’s damaged relationships (emphasis on moral influence atonement, nineteenth to twentieth centuries), and the sins of particular social contexts (the social dimension of the two previous items, notably in the twentieth century: the poor in relation to the rich, mixed races, women and men, the use and abuse of personal, corporate, and military power).

Additional questions deserve to be raised. In an era of advanced technology, can any human technological accomplishment be morally neutral without restructuring further the cycles of natural and human life? Have the structures and inequities of human society become so large and self–serving that they invariably oppress people and particular groups of people? Has the scale of evil in the twentieth century—world wars, the Holocaust, genocide, the threat of nuclear annihilation, apartheid, unrelieved famines, the disruption of the environment, epidemics of substance abuse and AIDS—outstripped views of sin currently held singly? How have the varieties of people, ideologies, and ways of living complicated present attempts to identify and address what is sinful in particular situations and contexts?


Barth, CD III/3, 50; IV/1, 60; IV/2, 65; IV/3, 70; G. C. Berkouwer, Sin (1971); Calvin, Inst 1.1–2; bk. 2; Heppe, RD, 301–70; Schleiermacher,

CD Karl Barch, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T, Clark, 1936–69)

RD Heinrich Hepee, Reformed Dogmatics, ed, Ernst Bizer (ET 1950; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978)

Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press, 1992), 350.

© 2010, Matt. All rights reserved.