The Essential Nature of Sin


Is there one basic principle of sin, one underlying factor that characterizes all of sin in its manifold varieties?
One suggestion is that sin is essentially selfishness—the “choice of self as the supreme end which constitutes the antithesis of supreme love to God.” This view was held by Augustus Strong, and, in a somewhat different form, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr contended that pride, hubris, is the major form of human opposition to God.

According to Strong, selfishness, the preference of oneself to God, may reveal itself in many forms. In someone with inordinate appetites or desires, it takes the form of sensuality. Selfishness may also appear as unbelief, turning away from the truth of God. Or it may be manifested as enmity to God, if we conceive of God’s holiness as resisting and punishing us. Thus, sin in whatever form is selfishness. It is preferring one’s own ideas to God’s truth. It is preferring the satisfaction of one’s own will to doing God’s will. It is loving oneself more than God. Dethronement of God from his rightful place as the Lord of one’s life requires enthroning something else, and this is understood to be the enthronement of oneself.

Here again is a view that has much to commend it, It certainly strikes a responsive note in the thinking of many of us, for we know that selfishness holds a firm grip on our lives and induces us to commit many sins. Yet there is one major problem with this view. Some of what we do cannot really be characterized as selfish in the strict sense, yet is sinful. For example, there are those who sin against God, not by loving themselves more than they love God, but by loving some other person more. And there are some people who give their lives for a cause that is opposed to that of God. It might, of course, be countered that this is what brings such people satisfaction. Suffering or death is what really meets their selfish needs and desires. But this counterargument would involve defining “selfishness” in such an elastic way that nothing could possibly count against the theory that selfishness is the essence of sin, in which case the theory would be a meaningless statement.

(Ericson MJ 1998. Christian Theology, 597-598. Grand Rapids:Baker).

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