Sin is humanity’s refusal to be God’s creatures and grab for autonomous control of our own lives (like every toddler famously puts it, we tell God “you aren’t the boss of me!”). We can picture it this way:
The middle letter of the word “sin” is “i” – exalted above the “s” and “n” it represents the overweening pride and arrogance of our human refusal to be God’s creatures and striving to be our own deity.
Sin is fundamentally irrational. There is no reason for it. It should not have happened, but it did. Sin is the irresolvable enigma at the heart of our tortured humanity. There is no rational explanation for its origin or why Adam and Eve acted as they did. Original sin is intended to express this enigma not explain it. One theologian has described it like this: Sin is inevitable but not necessary (Reinhold Neibuhr). Further it seeks to describe the effects of sin.
Original sin means “as Adam, so us.” He is our representative head of the human family. What he does and what happens to him become our doing and destiny too. Though foreign to us, this notion of representative headship was common in the biblical world. Paul uses it to describe our status as redeemed humanity. We are “in Christ.” What he has done and happened to him has become our too! Thanks be to God!
Once unleashed sin becomes a power outside us standing over against us seeking to subdue and destroy us (see Gen.4:7; Rom.5:12-21). Therefore we have to distinguish between sin and sins. The singular is the alien power of sin that has us it a death grip from which we cannot by ourselves escape. Sins, the plural, are the acts and attitudes that evidence our slavery to the power of sin. The symptoms, as it were, of the incurable mortal disease we have contracted.
Sin is basically a relational reality. We fractured our relation to God by breaking faith with him and seeking to live apart from him. We have spurned his friendship. This broken relationship with God sours everything else in human life. Cut off from our source, we
-no longer understand or live at peace with ourselves (Gen.3); -no longer understand or live at peace with one another (Gen.4); -no longer understand or live at peace with the creation itself (Gen.6-8).
Guilt and shame are two major consequences of sin. Trying to live on our own, by ourselves, and in our own power, we seek to assuage our guilt and efface our shame. Thus all the works of our hands, even the best, noblest, and most heroic, are tainted by our desire to justify ourselves and feel as if we truly belong in this fallen world. This is what the reformed tradition means by the harsh sounding phrase “total depravity.” It does not mean we are all as bad as we could be. Rather it means that everything we do is tainted by the pride, arrogance, and apathy of living apart from the friendship of God.
These dimensions of sin – theological, psychological, social, and cosmic – form the matrix of life for us in this post-Adamic world. God’s creational dream is trashed. We are erstwhile creatures, and even friends, of God. We can no longer be or do what God created us to be and do. This is the problem God sets himself to solve.