Paul’s letter to the Romans contains the most extensive teaching on sin in the New Testament.
Martin F. Hanna
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, asks a number of questions about sin (hamartia). “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin?” (6:1, NKJV).1 “What shall we say then? Is the law sin?” (7:7). The subject of sin is also implied when Paul asks, “Has then what is good [the law] become death to me?” (vs. 13); and “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vs. 24). It is evident that these also are questions about sin, because Paul writes that “sin . . . was producing death in me through what is good” (vs. 13). Paul’s attention to these questions indicates that his Letter to the Romans is an important resource for clarifying the biblical teaching on sin. Romans is “the sum and crown of the Pauline gospel,”2 and it is “arguably the single most important work of Christian theology ever written.”3
The most important New Testament Greek word translated as “sin” is hamartia (nearly 175 times). The word appears most frequently in Paul’s letters, and among these letters, the word appears most frequently in the letter to the Romans (48 times). In Romans 1 to 4 and 6 Paul uses the word hamartia less frequently (4 times) than in Romans 5 to 8 (42 times). In the first section of the letter, the focus is on salvation from sin (3:9, 20; 4:7, 8) through justification (3:21–26; 4:5, 6). In the second section of the letter, the focus is on salvation from sin in terms of the relation of justification to sanctification and to glorification (5:1, 2, 5; 6:20, 22; 8:21, 30).
It is important to appreciate the semantic complexity of Paul’s teaching on sin. Otherwise, as Peter writes in a different context, we will “twist” Paul’s statements in a way that facilitates spiritual “destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). The teaching that we are “set free from sin” (Rom. 6:22) is destructively twisted (1) when Christians are spiritually discouraged, because they notice that they continue to struggle with sin; (2) when Christians are spiritually presumptuous in concluding that they no longer commit any sins; and (3) when Christians no longer resist sin because of spiritual discouragement or presumption.
The semantic complexity of Paul’s teaching on sin is evident in his reference to three dimensions of sin: involuntary corruption, voluntary carnality, and legal condemnation. These dimensions of sin are presented here in an order that reflects the different dimensions of the meaning of the word hamartia that are presented in Paul’s writings.
First, Paul uses the word hamartia when he refers to sin as “the bondage of corruption” (Rom. 8:21) whereby even “if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin [hamartia]” (vs.10). This meaning of the word—taken from archery—involves missing the mark or target that one aims at. As such, sin is an involuntary activity as is illustrated in Paul’s personal testimony: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (7:19, 20).
Second, Paul uses another dimension of the biblical meaning of hamartia when he refers to those who are “carnally minded” (Rom. 8:6), “who live according to the [sinful] flesh,” thus Jesus “condemned sin [hamartia] in the flesh” (vss. 5, 3). This dimension of the word’s meaning involves voluntary sin through intentionally aiming at the wrong mark as is evident in the following rhetorical question: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (6:16).
Third, Paul uses another dimension of the biblical meaning of hamartia when he describes God’s legal judgment of “condemnation” (Rom. 3:8; 5:16; 8:1, 3) on those who have missed the mark. As such, sin is a status of condemnation under the law of “God [who is] judge [of] the world” (3:6). Paul judges that “all [are] under sin” in that “whatever the law [of God] says, it says to those who are under the law, that all the world may become guilty before God” (vss. 9, 19). As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “Scripture has confined all under sin,” so they are “kept under guard by the law” (Gal. 3:22, 23).
Paul’s teaching on these three dimensions of the sin problem will be described more completely in subsequent sections of this article. The goal is not to explain away “the mystery of lawlessness [sin]” (2 Thess. 2:7) since an explanation of sin would be an excuse for sin—and sin is inexplicable and inexcusable. “Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin.”4 Rather, the goal is to clarify Paul’s way of presenting the mystery of the sin problem in his letter to the Romans. Other biblical perspectives will also be mentioned where they are helpful in clarifying the content of Paul’s teaching on the mystery of sin in Romans 1 to 4 and Romans 5 to 8.
Sin in Romans 1 to 4
Romans 1: The good news about sin. The word hamartia is not used in Romans 1. Instead, Paul refers to “ungodliness,” “unrighteousness” (vs. 18), “uncleanness” and “lusts” (vs. 24). But these terms are connected with hamartia in other chapters of the letter (4:5–8; 5:6–12; 6:12, 13, 18–20). Through this variety of words for “sin,” Paul presents the sin problem in relation to its solution through the good news of “the gospel of God” and “Christ,” which “is the power of God to salvation” from sin (1:1, 16). In the gospel, “the righteousness [justification] of God is revealed from faith to faith;”5 as it is written, “‘The just [the righteous] shall live by faith’” (vs. 17); and “whatever is not from faith is sin” (14:23).
The connection between the gospel and the sin problem is also indicated when Paul devotes the entire second half of the first chapter of his letter to presenting an extensive catalog of specific sins (Rom. l:17–32). All sinners who read this chapter will find at least some of their sins listed here. We may regard some of these as small sins. But Paul’s point is that all sins, large or small, put us in need of salvation because “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (vs. 18). The good news is that those who have been “justified . . . shall be saved from [God’s] wrath” against sin (5:9).
Romans 2: Sin and the law. As with Romans 1, the noun hamartia does not appear in chapter 2. Instead, Paul uses the verb hamartano, which he connects with hamartia in other chapters (3:20–23; 5:12–16; 6:14–16). Paul uses hamartano to teach that the need for salvation is present among all people since “as many as have sinned [hamartano] without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged [as condemned] by the law” (2:12). Here Paul refers to the law that was revealed to the nation of Israel since the Gentiles “are a law to themselves” and “show the work of the law written in their hearts” (vss. 14, 15). The relation between the law (in its various forms) and the sin problem is further described in the next chapter of Romans.
Romans 3: Under sin and under law. Paul makes explicit in chapter 3 what is implied in the first two chapters of his letter—all have sinned, and all are condemned as sinners. “For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’” (3:9, 10). “We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty [condemned] before God” (vs. 19). Therefore, everyone needs God’s justification from the condemnation of sin. We cannot accomplish this for ourselves because “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His [God’s] sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin [hamartia]” (vs. 20). In addition, everyone needs God’s glorification because “all have sinned [hamartano] and fall short of the glory of God” (vs. 23). Paul further discusses the condemnation of sin in Romans 4.
Romans 4: Case studies on sin—Abraham and David. As described above, beginning in the first chapter of his letter, Paul presents God’s righteousness and justification as a solution to the sin problem. This is illustrated through two case studies concerning Abraham and David. Abraham has nothing “to boast about” “according to the flesh” because he is not “justified by works.” Instead, “his faith is accounted for righteousness [justification]” (4:1–5).
This justification and righteousness is a solution to the sin problem as Paul indicates in his second case study, in which “David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness [justification] apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless [anomia] deeds are forgiven, and whose sins [hamartia] are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin [hamartia]’” (vss. 6–8). Here the meaning of the word sin includes the legal status of condemnation. As is discussed further below, those who are “freed [justified] from sin” (6:7) and “set free from sin” (vs. 22) have been set free from the condemnation of sin. Similarly, they also need to be set free from the other dimensions of the sin problem.
These previous paragraphs have focused largely on Paul’s teaching concerning hamartia (sin) as condemnation that stands in contrast to justification. At the same time, additional elements from Romans 1 to 4 provide a suitable transition to Paul’s discussion of the different dimensions of sin in Romans 5 to 8. These dimensions of sin are anticipated in both explicit and implicit references to God’s solution to the sin problem through justification, sanctification, and glorification. First, sinners “will be justified” (2:13). Second, sinners are uncircumcised “in the Spirit” (vs. 29)—meaning that they need to be “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:16). Third, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Therefore, God responds to this with the “promise” that “Abraham” and “his seed” would be “the [heirs]. . . of the world” (4:13)—a promise that includes glorification since those who are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” will “also be glorified together” with Him (8:17). In Part 2 of his letter, Paul shows that the solution to the sin problem (through justification, sanctification, and glorification) is a response to three dimensions of the sin problem (legal condemnation, voluntary carnality, and involuntary corruption).
Sin in Romans 5 to 8
Romans 5: The ancestry of sin—Adam and his descendants. In this second part of his letter, Paul presents three dimensions of salvation from sin as follows: “Having been justified by faith [justification],” “we. . . rejoice in hope of the glory of God [glorification]” “because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit [sanctification]” (5:1, 2, 5). The three dimensions of salvation are also indicated when Paul writes in another letter that we “wait for the hope [glorification] of righteousness [justification] by faith” “working through love [sanctification]” (Gal. 5:5, 6). Paul’s discourse of these three dimensions of salvation prepares the way for his extensive presentation of the ancestry of the sin problem in Adam and his descendants and its solution through Christ (Rom. 5:6–21). This study focuses on what Paul writes about the sin problem.
Paul introduces the ancestry of the sin problem by pointing out that “sinners” (vs. 8) are “without strength,” “ungodly” (vs. 6), not “righteous,” not “good” (vs. 7), under “wrath” (vs. 9), and “enemies” of God (vs. 10). Then, using a vivid personification of sin and death, Paul describes how “through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (vs. 12); so “sin reigned in death” (vs. 21) and “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (vs. 14).
Adam’s first sin was voluntary; but after this, he and his descendants possess a corrupt nature and, therefore, we sin both voluntarily and involuntarily. The involuntary dimension is indicated in the fact that “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom. 5: 19). This results in sin as a legal condemnation since “the judgment [of God] which came from one offense [by Adam] resulted in condemnation” “to all” (vss. 16, 18). “Adam’s legacy was not simply physical mortality . . . but also spiritual depravity.”6 Sin is “a lack of conformity to the will of God, either in act or state” . . . “into which we are born (original corruption).”7 “The inheritance of children is that of sin. . . . As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death.”8
Both the awareness of involuntary sin and the voluntary activity of sin increase when there is an increasing revelation of God’s law. “Until [or before] the law [came through Moses] sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (vs. 13). This harmonizes with Paul’s teaching that there was a revelation of law to the Gentile nations before the revelation of the law of Moses to the nation of Israel (vss. 14, 15). This discussion of sin and law prepares the way for Paul’s presentation (in Romans 6) of conscious and voluntary sin in relation to God’s grace. At the end of chapter 5, Paul writes that “the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (vs. 20).
Romans 6: Voluntary sin. Paul’s teaching in chapter 5 leads to two questions presented at the start of chapter 6: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (vss, 1, 2). The answer to these questions contains a description of how we are saved (1) from the legal status of sin (condemnation) through justification; (2) from the voluntary carnality of sin through sanctification; and (3) from the involuntary corruption of sin through glorification.
These dimensions of salvation from sin are grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3–11). “Our old man was crucified with Him [Christ], that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed [justified] from sin” (vss. 6, 7). “But now having been set free from sin [justification], . . . you have your fruit to holiness [sanctification], and the end, everlasting [eternal] life [glorification]” (vs. 22).
Paul’s reference to the fruit of holiness (sanctification) is closely connected with his teaching that sin is sometimes voluntary in the life of a believer. This is evident in the following appeal by Paul. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin. . . . For sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:12–14). “Just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness” (vs. 19).
Romans 7: Involuntary sin. While Paul sometimes describes sin as voluntary, he also describes it as involuntary. This is the case in Romans 7, which many Bible students have concluded is the most difficult chapter in the entire letter. The chapter begins by using marriage to illustrate the differences between the law and Christ (7:1–6). “When we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by [marriage to] the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from [marriage to] the law [by marriage to Christ]. . . so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit [sanctification] and not in the oldness of the letter [of the law]” (vss. 5, 6).
This prepares the way for Paul to answer some questions that reflect misunderstandings of sin in relation to the law as follows. “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known [been conscious of] sin except through the law” (7:7). We can be “unconscious” of our “sinful state,” and sin “includes unconscious acts” that are identified by the law as sin. At the same time, sin misuses the law to become not only voluntary but also involuntary. As Paul writes, “Sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead [unconscious and/or involuntary], . . . But when the commandment came, sin revived” (vss. 8, 9); sin “deceived me, and . . . . killed me” (vs. 11). Even when we become conscious of our sin, we cannot remove it through any voluntary power within ourselves.
Paul’s description of the involuntary corruption of sin is not intended to minimize its seriousness. Instead, his goal is to highlight the superlative sinfulness of sin in contrast to “the law [which] is holy, . . . just and good” (Rom. 7:12). This leads him to ask, and answer, another question about sin and the law: “Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (7:13). Those who limit sin to the sins that they consciously and voluntarily choose are the ones who are minimizing the problem of sin!
As indicated at the start of Romans 7, the problem of sin is increased if we are married to the law instead of to Christ (vss. 1–6). This contrast between marriage to the law and to Christ clarifies how Paul uses the present tense (in vss. 14–25) to describe his Christian perspective on his relationship to the law and sin apart from Christ. This is similar to the use of the present tense in another letter to indicate who Paul is apart from Christ—as one among “sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul’s presentation of who he is apart from Christ is outlined in Romans 7 as follows:
In Christ, “we know that the law is spiritual, but [apart from Christ] I am carnal, sold under sin” (vs. 14)—I am an involuntary captive to sin (vss. 14–25). What “I will” in Christ, apart from Christ, “I do not practice” (vs. 15). “But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (vs. 17). “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (7:18) since “evil is present with me” (vs. 21). “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man [in Christ]. But [apart from Christ] I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am [apart from Christ]! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, [in Christ] with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but [apart from Christ] with the flesh [I serve] the law of sin” (vss. 22–25).
Romans 8: Sin as condemnation, carnality, and corruption. The three dimensions of freedom from sin are mentioned in Romans 8. The first two dimensions are mentioned right at the start of the chapter. Present freedom from the legal status of sin and guilt is indicated in that “there is therefore now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1); this is justification from sin. In addition, present freedom from voluntary activity of sin is indicated in that “those who are in Christ Jesus. . . do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit [sanctification from sin]. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (vss. 1, 2). Note that this freedom is not the result of the removal of the flesh with its involuntary sin. Instead, this freedom results from choosing to walk according to “the Spirit [who] is [the source of] life because of righteousness” (vs. 10).
Voluntary walking according to the flesh is voluntary sin because the flesh is “sinful flesh” due to involuntary “sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Those who “live according to the flesh [are those who voluntarily] set their minds on the things of the flesh” (vs. 5). As such, they are “carnally minded,” which is spiritual “death” (vs. 6) “because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (vss. 7, 8). Even “if Christ is in you, the body is [spiritually] dead [mortal] because of sin” (vs. 10). As a result, there are involuntary sinful “deeds of the body,” which Christians are to “put to death” (vs. 13).
This process of “[s]anctification is not a work of a day or a year, but of a lifetime.”9 It continues until glorification: “we suffer with Him [Christ], that we may also be glorified together [with Him]. . . . The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17, 18). This glorification takes place when “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption [the involuntary activity of sin] into the glorious liberty [freedom] of the children of God” (vs. 21). This glorious freedom is described as “the adoption” and “the redemption of our body” (vs. 23). Until then, “the Spirit. . . helps in our weaknesses” (vs. 26). “Are you ready for a lifetime of daily change?”10
Pressing on the Upward Way
Paul’s letter to the Romans contains the most extensive teaching on sin in the New Testament. Paul teaches that, with the exception of Christ, all humans are sinners though not all have sinned in the same way. There are three dimensions of sin: (1) legal condemnation, (2) voluntary carnality, and (3) involuntary corruption.
The different dimensions of sin and salvation are implicit in Paul’s testimony about “the righteousness [justification] which is from God by faith” through which “I may attain to the resurrection from the dead [glorification]” (Phil. 3:9, 11). “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on. . . . One thing I do, . . . I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus [sanctification]. Therefore let us, as many as are mature [in Christ], have this mind” (vss. 12–15).
The essence of Paul’s testimony is wonderfully captured in the words of a favorite hymn by Johnson Oatman Jr. entitled “Higher Ground.” The hymn begins with the words “I’m pressing on the upward way.” The last verse is especially expressive of the truth that those who are justified from the legal condemnation of sin will be sanctified from the carnality of voluntary sin and will receive God’s “finishing touch” of glorification from the corruption of involuntary sin.
“I want to scale the utmost height,
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till heaven I’ve found,
‘Lord, lead me on to higher ground.’”11
Martin F. Hanna. PhD, is an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Dialogue at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES