Sin is failure to believe and trust in God, and to desire to be independent of him. God gives commands and establishes moral laws for our good. In the Genesis account, the serpent at first undermined belief in God's commands, so preparing Adam and Eve for disobedience (Genesis 3:4-5). It is sin to act, as they did, in unbelief and to fail to trust God's goodness. To do so is to base our lives on a lie.
Sin is idolatry. The serpent assured Adam and Eve that rebellion would elevate them to a position of equality with God. Such rebellion represents a presumptuous attempt to place ourselves and our own will in the place of God. It is an attempt to attain abundant life by following the path of self-will. The result is that, far from rising into a state of godlike independence, we decline into a condition of spiritual slavery and moral destitution (Genesis 6:5; Deuteronomy 4:25-31).
Sin is a failure to live according to the high standard of love for God and one another that true humanity demands. Because our desires are corrupted by self-centeredness, we miss the mark. We grieve God, a truth made starkly evident in the Cross of Christ. We fail one another not only by breaking rules but also by violating the wholeness of persons and communities (Mark 7:21-23; Isaiah 59:2-15).
The definition of sin as anything contrary to the known will of God can serve as a practical guide. Sin impairs our sense of what is right and our ability to discern God's will, though it rarely destroys it completely (Romans 8:15-25). Repeated acts of disobedience, together with the influence of a godless society and the blind acceptance of peer-group norms, may drastically deaden the conscience. This can result in a moral insensitivity that the New Testament describes as being "dead in your transgressions and sins" (Ephesians 2:1; James 1:13-15). Only by the renewing power of the gospel can we hope to recover an awareness of God's will and the desire to do it (Romans 8:13).
Guilt feelings make us conscious of having sinned. Sometimes these feelings are excessive, brought about by pressure from others or problems of background or temperament. Genuine guilt is the result of conscious transgression and consequent blame: it arises from who we are. The doctrines of original sin and depravity address this truth.
1. Original Sin
The term 'original sin' emphasizes the origin and radical consequences of the Fall. It reminds us that, although originally an intrusion, sin is inborn. Our tendency is to sin. In that sense, we are 'born in son' (Psalm 51:5). This does not refer to the physical aspects of procreation. Human instincts are morally neutral and can be used either creatively or destructively. The phrase 'born in sin' rather refers to our condition under the power of sin.
The term 'original sin' and 'depravity' are often used to mean the same thing, but the latter refers more specifically to the moral condition of fallen humanity, rather than to the beginnings of sin.
In statements of doctrine, depravity is often called total depravity. This does not mean that every person is as bad as he or she can be, but rather than the depravity which sin has produced in human nature extends to the total personality. It is not concerned with the depth of sin but rather about the breadth of the influence of sin in human life. No area of human nature remains unaffected.
We are sinful in disposition so that even attempts at righteousness are tainted with sin. Human freedom to respond to God and to make moral choices is therefore impaired (Romans 7:14-25).