Imago Maniacs: Man, Sin, and The Law of God

“What huge imago made a psychopathic god”
-W.H. Auden

The phrase “repent of your sins” is a common expression today, especially amongst Evangelical Christians. But when asked, “what is a sin” the common Evangelical answer is “missing the mark”. And while we might throw in a factoid from Sunday’s sermon about the etymology of sin and its roots in archery, that is about as deep as our hamartiology goes. This is a sad state of affairs given the deep and rich historical roots of some of our Evangelical theology. With that in mind, In this paper, we will dive deeper into sin… so to speak. In so doing, we will argue that in order to understand the nature of sin, we need to first understand the nature of man as revealed to us by God. By using the Triperspectival method of John Frame, we will provide a biblical doctrine of man from which we can more fully understand the subjectivistic nature of sin.

This self-conscious effort to understand sin from biblical revelation, however, creates an apparent problem: the problem of those without Divine Revelation. How are those “without the Law” supposed to be held responsible for keeping it? How can they even know that they have sinned? We will answer this apparent problem through transcendental moral reasoning in order to make explicit the implications of Paul’s teaching in Romans 2. To summarize, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of sin, we will first describe a biblical anthropology, then we will use its negation as a helpful tool for defining sin. We will then seek to answer the problem of moral culpability in those without the law through a transcendental moral argument derived from Romans 2.

So, what does it mean to be human? Philosopher Mortimer Adler notes that mankind’s study of what it means to be human “is the only study in which the knower and the known are one, in which the object of the science is the nature of the scientist.” [1] C.S. Lewis, also commenting on the paradoxical nature of man’s study of man, observes that “after studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them.”[2] It is this paradoxical endeavor of man defining himself from the ground up which leads to a positive feedback loop. Man’s inability to lift himself by his own coat collar demonstrates the need for an external ontic referent by which to find a definition.

Instead of building our concept of ‘man’ up from our phenomenological experience of men, a Christian theological anthropology defines man in reference to God. We say with Calvin that, “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[3] Though we also recognize, with Calvin, that since “these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”[4] This close connection between our knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God is so intricately woven that it is hard to determine which knowledge comes first. Cornelius Van Til uses the language of “immediate” or “proximate” starting points and “ultimate” starting points in order to help us understand this relationship,

“By immediate starting point is meant the place where the knowledge of facts must begin. It is of course quite consistent with a theistic position to say that we must start with the “facts” as that term is understood ordinarily. Neither Augustine nor Calvin would have objected to saying that knowledge of self was their immediate and temporary starting point. But when the question of an ultimate starting point is raised the matter is different. In that case Augustine and Calvin would both have to say that their ultimate starting point is God. That is, they could intelligently think of their own non-existence but were unable to think intelligently of God’s non-existence.”[5]

So a Christian anthropology, following Calvin and Van Til, will view our immediate knowledge of ourselves as ultimately presupposing our knowledge of God the Creator. This makes sense especially in light of Genesis 1:26-27 where we learn that God created man and woman in His very own image. Given that we are image bearers of God, it makes sense that to truly know ourselves we have to know the One whose image we have been made in.

What exactly does it mean to be made in the image of God? In what ways do we “image” Him? In drawing out the implications of the imago dei we may start by arguing for the primacy of the intellect; claiming that our rational faculties are what set us apart from the animal kingdom and through thinking and knowing we image our Rational Creator. We could point to Paul’s wish for the church in Colossae, that they would “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.[6] Or we could point to the words of Jesus himself in John 17 where he says that eternal life is knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ the one whom He sent.[7] Scripture attests again and again that there is something essential about man’s cognitive faculties- for “it is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”[8] So as an image bearer of God, man receives God’s Revelation in order to understand His universe. God interprets reality: man reinterprets reality to think God’s thoughts after Him. Man as imago dei is a reinterpreter.

In contrast to the primacy of the intellect we could argue for the primacy of the will. It is our ability to exercise our volition in making free choices that we image our free Creator God. We could point to what is known as the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1 as exhibit A. Mankind’s original duty was to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”[9] J.R.R. Tolkien summarizes this perspective in his idea of “sub-creator”[10]. Tolkien notes that “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[11] Man is to cultivate the earth, care for God’s creatures, nurture his family, train up the next generation of image bearers, and every other action that falls within the realm of dominion. Man is to be the arbiter of God’s will here on earth. As God created ex nihilo, so man sub-creates with and in God’s creation. Thus man images God as His sub-creator.

Still a third option is to argue for the primacy of the emotions; it is in our capacity to love that we image God who is Love. As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”[12] Not only is love the fulfillment of the law, love is from God and whoever loves knows God- indeed “God is love”.[13] Because God is love, and because He first loved us, we, his image bearers, emulate his love to our fellow image bearers and to the rest of Creation- for “whoever loves God must also love his brother.”[14] Man as image bearer of God is an emulative-lover.

All three of these perspectives on the imago dei are compelling and biblical support for each one abounds, yet despite this fact, we like to pick and choose the perspective that most resonates with our own gifts and proclivities. Van Til notes that “As human beings we are naturally inclined to be one-sided. One tends to be intellectualistic, another tends to be emotional, and still another tends to be activistic. One tends to be only prophetic, another only priest, and a third only king. We should be all these at once and in harmony.”[15] Van Til’s point is profound! In looking to the God-Man, Jesus Christ, and his three offices of prophet, priest, and king, we have warrant for holding our three perspectives in equal ultimacy rather than giving one primacy over against the others. It is for this reason that we turn to the Triperspectival method of John Frame.

Frame’s Triperspectival method argues that all of life can be fruitfully described from three perspectives: the normative perspective which focuses on the laws or norms, the situational perspective which focuses on the norms applied in time and space, and the existential perspective which focuses on the subjective personal experience of the knower. Frame says,

“I describe these as perspectives because they cannot be separated from one another. If we are to understand the situation rightly, we must understand it as the location of God’s revelation, his norms; so the situational includes the normative. To understand God’s norms rightly, we must understand how they apply to situations and to ourselves; so the normative includes the situational and existential. To understand God’s relationship to ourselves rightly, we must understand ourselves as part of a God-created environment (situational) and as covenant subjects made to live under God’s law (normative); so the existential includes the normative and the situational.”[16]

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When we apply this Triperspectival method to the three perspectives on man mentioned above, we find that man as reinterpreter images God normatively through his capacity to apprehend and use the theological norms of Scripture and of reason to know and to think God’s thoughts after Him. Man as sub-creator images God situationally through his ability to choose and create in time and space. And man as emulative-lover images God existentially through his ability to love as God loves. As Frame noted, each perspective entails the others so rather than choosing the perspective that we have a natural affinity for and neglecting the other two, we affirm that it is through all three perspectives that we image God. We cannot re-create or reinterpret rightly without emulating God’s love, we cannot reinterpret and love without re-creating action, and we cannot emulate God’s love without using God’s word as our guide for our loving actions. The Heidelberg Catechism beautifully summarizes our discussion thus far: “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, love him with his whole heart, and live with him in eternal blessedness, praising and glorifying him.”[17]

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With this stipulative definition of man as reinterpreter, sub-creator, and emulative-lover fresh in our minds we can now move to a deeper understanding of sin. Rather than starting with himself as proximate and viewing God as his ultimate reference point, man as sinner turned from God back on himself like an ingrown hair. Man, as sinner, has cut himself off from God and now sees himself both as the proximate starting point and the ultimate starting point with no need for God’s Revelation. In cutting himself off from God, man seeks to be a self-interpreter rather than a reinterpreter, a self-creator rather than a sub-creator, and a self-lover rather than an emulative-lover. This subjective turn from God to self is the essence of sin.

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We see this subjective turn to self in Genesis when Eve turns from the objective command given from God to her through Adam, to her own autonomous judgement. God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and somewhere between Genesis 2:17 and Genesis 3:2 Eve also learned of the command. The serpent then slithered his way up to Eve and brought God’s authority into question. Eve, rather than rebuking the serpent and holding fast to God’s Word, judged the situation for herself. She weighed the command of God, and considered this new information presented by the serpent. Upon reflection, she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”[18] And thus after the first two human acts of subjective turning from Creator to creature, humanity fell into sin and the image of God was marred.

The “marring” of the image of God in the fall is important language to use for affirming the continuation of humanity in the image of God, while at the same time affirming that something is horribly wrong; the image of God has been corrupted. Cornelius Plantinga, explaining the corruption which took place in the fall, says, “The story of the fall tells us that sin corrupts: it puts asunder what God had joined together and joins together what God had put asunder. Like some devastating twister, corruption both explodes and implodes creation, pushing it back toward the “formless void” from which it came.”[19] The fall of man, therefore is not a complete destruction of the image of God, and sin is not something in and of itself, but as Plantinga rightly notes, it is a corruption, a marring, a bentness- something that ought not be, yet is.

Herman Bavinck, in treating the essentials of sin in his Reformed Dogmatics, responds in similar fashion to Plantinga. Bavinck opts for a privation view of sin in order to combat the view that sin is some sort of substance. He states that,

“Christian theology… from the beginning maintained that sin was not a substance… If sin were a substance there would exist an entity that either was not created by God or was not caused by God. Sin, accordingly, has to be understood and described neither as an existing thing nor as being in things that exist but rather as a defect, a deprivation, an absence of the good, or as weakness, imbalance, just as blindness is a deprivation of sight.”[20]

But while Bavinck uses a privation view of sin in order to preemptively refute the claim that somethings exists which God did not create, he also wants to affirm that sin is not merely an absence or simply a lack- sin is not the hole in the center of the donut. Bavinck continues,

“Certainly [sin] is not a mere lack, pure nonbeing, but an active and corrupting principle, a dissolving, destructive power. Scripture usually speaks of it in a very positive sense as an act of transgression, wrongness, disobedience, lawlessness, and so on and ascribes to it the activity of witnessing, ruling, moving, thinking, fighting, and so on.[21]

He goes on to describe the impetus of theologians who reject the privation view of sin- and with it, the privation view of evil- in explaining that those rejecting the view feel as though they are able to more adequately describe sin as “real” instead of being left with some form of “nonbeing”. But Bavinck then continues on to find a happy medium between the privationists and the real-something-ists, saying, “sin is not mere or pure privation but an action deprived of due order, a privation having a positive quality and action that is, and active privation.[22] This idea of an “active privation” serves those concerned to uphold the seriousness of sin as a real something along with those concerned to keep sin out of the hands of God. Sin is not a weird abstract concept like donut holes (I’m speaking of true donut holes, of course, i.e. the actual hole in the donut, not the donut plugs that the bakers pedal under the name “donut holes”), instead, sin is more like a purposeful corruption in the donut itself. Bavinck cautions us that,

“sin is not a physical or metaphysical but an ethical antithesis of the good, it has no self-existent, independent being of its own. Those who consider sin a substance may seem to be deeply convinced of its power and importance but in fact weaken it by transferring it from the ethical to the physical domain and turn the conflict between good and evil into a struggle between light and darkness, spirit and matter, a good and an evil God, a struggle that is never-ending and makes all redemption from sin impossible. For that reason it is of supreme importance always to view sin as an ethical phenomenon. Certainly the punishments and consequences of sin extend also to the physical domain, but sin itself is and remains ethical in character. That being the case, sin cannot have its own principle and its own independent existence; it only originated after and exists only by and in connection with the good. While evil does depend on the good, the reverse is not true.”[23]

Thus, by taking Bavinck’s definition of sin as an ethical active privation, we are able to maintain that sin is something, but it is not something that owes its existence to God, rather, sin is an ethical corruption in mankind brought on by the subjective turn of Adam and Eve from God’s good Revelation as their ultimate reference point to themselves as the final interpreters of reality.

Here we need to take a brief excurses to acknowledge the fact that by Genesis 3 Satan had already “fallen”. Thus it is important to acknowledge that sin simpliciter does not originate with Adam and Eve, but rather it is human sin that traces its roots back to them. When it comes to Satan’s fall, we do not see an ominous tempter in the scene; there appears to be no meta-Satan tempting Satan. So, while Satan’s case is a more unique and mysterious case, Bavinck’s notion of sin as active privation works just as well in characterizing Satan’s sin as it does for characterizing mankind’s. While Satan and sin are almost synonymous in our minds today, it is important to remember that Satan is a fallen angel. He is a formerly good being who rejected his telos, turned from the Creator to the creature in setting himself up as both proximate and ultimate starting point, and became corrupted. He then spread his corruption to the human race through his active role in bringing about the fall of mankind by the tempting Eve. So Satan, like Adam and Eve, took a subjective turn and in so doing, fell.

While we often call this subjective turn from God to self “the fall”, we must not let that terminology confuse the matter, as if Satan, Adam and Eve, and the rest of humanity somehow lost their footing then slipped and fell into sin. The fall into Sin was not an accident- sin is not a “whoopsie-daisy”. C.S. Lewis explains that “The Fall is simply and solely disobedience- doing what you have been told not to do: and it results from Pride- from being too big for your own boots, forgetting your place, thinking that you are God.”[24] While Lewis’s language might be a bit off the cuff, his message is weighty. In disobeying God you are confusing yourself with Him- that is an astronomically big deal! That’s evil.

Louis Berkhof, reminds us that “Sin is a moral evil.”[25] And he goes on to say that sin,

“is not a calamity that came upon man unawares, poisoned his life, and ruined his happiness, but an evil course which man has deliberately chosen to follow and which carries untold misery with it. Fundamentally, it is not something passive, such as a weakness, a fault, or an imperfection, for which we cannot be held responsible, but an active opposition to God, and a positive transgression of His law, which constitutes guilt.”[26]

So, sin is a deliberate act of the will. Instead of using the will that God blessed humanity with in order for us to fulfill our roles as sub-creators under Him, the sinner abuses that will in order to serve self rather than God. Instead of making, cultivating, nurturing, shaping, and forming creation on behalf of God and for His glory, man as sinner focuses rather on creating for self. The sinner rejects their telos and seeks to create their own subjective telos with their Nietzschean will to power. Sin, instead of righteous sub-creating, is wicked self-creating.

While sin has infected our wills, it has not stopped there- it has also infected our minds. Sin is an irrational act of the intellect against God’s Revelation as our norm as well as a rebellion against our gift of right reason. In contemplating on this bent normative perspective, we are reminded that “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”[27] John Frame, commenting on the irrationality of subjectively turning to the creature rather than to Revelation from the Creator, notes that,

“sin is a radical disruption in the core of our being. In, sin we turn from God’s good commandments, his kingdom and glory, faith, and love. It embraces rebellious disobedience, the kingdom of Satan, and evil attitudes (hatred, immorality, strife, jealousy, anger, envy, and so on). Thus, sin is irrational. Why would anyone turn form the beauty and joy of covenant life with God and embrace its opposite? Or why would anyone think he could succeed in opposing God’s omnipotent power? Satan is the example. Evidently he thought he could replace God on the throne. Although we generally consider Satan to be knowledgeable and intelligent, and although many opponents of God seem wise to the world and to themselves, they are guilty of the worst imaginable stupidity. They haven’t a ghost of a chance to defeat God. Yet sinners embrace sin with reckless enthusiasm. This is the root of its noetic effects.”[28]

As Frame recognizes, sin makes us irrational fools. Though all of creation testifies to God’s eternal power and divine nature, though day to day pours out testimony to God’s majesty, though night to night reveals knowledge about Him, sinful man continues to suppress these truths in unrighteousness. Concerning sinful mankind, The Apostle Paul says, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened, Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”[29] Sin is foolish self-interpretation instead of godly reinterpretation.

Sin is the corruption of the will and the corruption of the mind, but it is also the corruption of the affections. In turning from God to the self, men and women have become haters of God rather than lovers of God. In rebelling against God, we have continually gone against the moral conscience that He has bestowed on us. In order to love what our sinful hearts desire to love, we sear our God-given consciences. Plantinga warns that “by doing what he thinks is wrong, a person does what he thinks will grieve God, and the willingness to grieve God by one’s acts is itself grievous. Moreover, acting against one’s conscience might desensitizes it; indeed, repeated thwarting of one’s conscience might eventually kill it. The subjective sinner therefore risks moral suicide.”[30] In seeking to kill off our consciences, we are engaged in what Lewis calls “making men without chests.” Lewis remarks that “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”[31] As we have turned further toward the self and further away from God, our consciences have in equal measure grown thicker and thicker scar tissue. We don’t love God as we ought to and in turn we are not able to love the rest of creation as we ought to either. Rather than emulating God’s love to the rest of the created order and choosing to emulate God’s love back to Him, mankind as sinners instead are:

“filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”[32]

Sin is utilitarian self-love rather than God-directed emulating-love.

Transcendental Law and Culpability
We have seen thus far that a Triperspectival theological anthropology yields a fruitful definition of the imago dei: man as image bearer of God is a reinterpreter, sub-creator, and emulative-lover. We have also seen that sin is an active antithetical privation of the good in the ethical realm rather than in the physical or the metaphysical realms. Furthermore, we have seen that the subjectivist rejection of God as our ultimate reference point results in man as self-interpreter, self-creator, and self-lover. And we have built our argument off of the bedrock foundation of Scripture. But it is here that a perennial question naturally arises: what about those without Scripture? After all, If what the Bible says about sinful man is true, how are those without the Bible, who are presumably just as corrupt as the rest of us, to know that they are sinners in the first place? How can the Gentiles be held accountable to what the Bible says if they have never seen it?

It should be no surprise at this point that we will turn to the Bible yet again for an answer. In Romans 2:6-11, the Apostle Paul writes:

“[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first, and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”[33]

This idea of God rendering to everyone what they deserve makes sense and seems pretty fair- that is until we contemplate the last line, “For God shows no partiality.” Pauline scholar Andrew Das sums up the argument well: “this leads to an obvious objection. Did not God give the law to the Jews and not the Gentiles? Surely that introduces an unfair inequality into God’s dealings with humanity.”[34] Thankfully, however, Paul anticipated this objection and addressed it in the next section of his letter:

“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their, hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”[35]

Paul’s answer to our interlocutor’s objection is to point to the performative moral actions and to the consciences of those who do not have the revealed Law of God. For when the Gentiles do what the law requires, they show that the work of the law is actually written on their hearts. Das makes it clear that this passage is “far from saying that the Gentiles fulfill the entire Law, Paul is simply saying that the Gentiles occasionally do things that the Law requires. By their occasional fulfilling of the Law, the Gentiles show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts. They are as accountable before God as the Jews with the Law. Nonpossession of the Law is no excuse.”[36] As Das points out, this section is not meant to exculpate the Gentiles, rather Paul is doing the exact opposite in showing that even without the written Law the Gentiles are guilty and are aware of their guilt.

John Stott sheds further light on this dilemma for us in his commentary on Romans,

“Paul’s answer is that they are a law for themselves, not in the popular – albeit mistake – sense that they can frame their own laws, but in the sense that their own human being is their law. This is because God created them self-conscious moral persons, and they show by their behavior that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts… So then, although they do not have the law in their hands, they do have its requirements in their hearts, because God has written them there.”[37]

So, as Das and Stott make clear (via Paul) there is a pragmatic element to the morality that allows God to judge those who do not possess his Law in physical writing because their actions confirm that they have the works of the Law written on their hearts. Stott takes the argument further as he argues that it is in virtue of being made in the image of God that those without special Revelation still know God and know His moral requirements. At this point we might ask ourselves, “Is our confidence justified?” and answer with Wittgenstein, “What people accept as justification is shewn by how they think and live.”[38]

While there is certainly a pragmatic element in Paul’s answer to our dilemma, there is also a transcendental element. We now briefly turn to a discussion of Immanuel Kant in order to grasp the meaning of “transcendental”. In distinguishing between the notions of transcendent and transcendental in the thought of Kant, C. Steven Evans notes that,

“Kant uses the term transcendent to refer to entities that cannot be experienced; they go beyond any possible human experience… the “transcendental,” in contrast, does not refer to some entity that transcends experience but a condition or state of some entity that is presupposed by all of experience. We can describe and gain knowledge of what is transcendental. As an example… space and time are transcendental, because they are presupposed by experience and necessary for experience.”[39]

It is this notion of transcendental which can help us more fully understand what is going on with the Gentiles in Romans 2. The work of the law which is written on the hearts of the Gentiles is transcendental in the sense that their conflicting moral thoughts and their moral actions all presuppose a standard of morality by which to adjudicate between right and wrong, true and false, good and evil, better and worse.

As Lewis rightly observes, “If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring.”[40] And elsewhere, Lewis explains that even in cases of moral bickering one man, “is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”[41] What Lewis calls the Law of Nature, in Mere Christianity, is presupposed by men and women, boys and girls, every day in all of their moral reasonings, debates, scuffles, bickering, jockeying, and arguments.

What Lewis explains so well, and what is relevant for our immediate context concerning the Gentiles in Romans 2, is that it is in virtue of our status as imago dei that we have the capacity for moral reasoning at all. And it is in virtue of the transcendental moral law and our access to it, that we can adjudicate between right and wrong, good and evil, even in our daily lives. But it is also our access to this transcendental moral law that equally condemns us before God. For in using it to judge rightly, we show that the work of the law is indeed written on our hearts as well and our conscience convicts us of all the times we have sinned against God and our fellow man. Although Plantinga and Lewis warned us earlier about the dangers of destroying our conscience and creating men without chests, Romans 2 and the performative nature of moral reasoning seems to suggest that there is no escape from our conscience, at least in so far as culpability is concerned. It is this transcendental understanding of the works of the law that Van Til describes when he says,

“[unregenerate man’s] consciousness is as a matter of fact a derivative moral standard and not an ultimate moral standard, and the sinner somehow feels that if he sets himself up as God, judging good and evil, there is something wrong. He feels that he needs a moral absolute outside himself. The second fact is that man is abnormal in his moral judgements. Of this fact, too, the sinner has some consciousness. He admits that wrong moral action is common among men. He feels something of the fact that if moral evil is thought of as being ultimate in the universe, there is no morality possible at all. In the third place, he feels something of the fact that all the morality there is in this world must somehow exist by virtue of the ultimate victory of the good, which exists in metaphysical priority to evil… in spite of all this, man sins, and thus sins against better knowledge.”[42]

So, has God left the Gentiles without a witness? Is there injustice on God’s part for giving Special Revelation only to some and yet holding all of humanity responsible for the Law? By no means! Our consciences, our works, and even our conflicting thoughts bear witness to the fact that we know right and wrong- we know that we have sinned. Our proximate moral intuitions presuppose God’s very own nature, expressed in the transcendental moral law, which is our ultimate moral reference point.

It is at this proximate point that we can ultimately begin to bring our exploration of sin to a close. We began this paper by arguing that to truly know sin we need to first know our telos as image bearer of God. With help from John Frame’s triperspectival method we were able to analyze the doctrine of the imago dei and come to a thicker definition of man as reinterpreter, sub-creator, and emulative-lover. From there we were able to negate our three perspectives with Scriptural import and derive three perspectives on sin and sinners: self-interpreters, self-creators, and self-lovers. We then looked at a possible objection raised against our self-conscious use of Scripture for defining man and sin. We raised the question “what about those who don’t have the Bible?” And once again, we used the Bible for our foundation and answered the objection by arguing that God’s moral law is inescapable.

It is at this point, however, after a deep and arduous trudge through the bog of hamartiology, that I need to leave the reader with a ray of hope. In so far as we have failed in our roles as reinterpreters, sub-creators, and emulative-lovers, for all the times that we have turned to the creature rather than the Creator, and for all the times we have sought to be self-interpreters, self-creators, and self-lovers- there is always hope as long as there is still air in your lungs. There is a Prophet, Priest, and King, Jesus Christ, who offers his blood to cleanse us of all sins and if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Amen.

[1] Mortimer J. Adler, “Man” in Syntopicon vol. II (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. 1952) 1.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967) 89.

[3] John Calvin, The institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing LLC., 2008) 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing CO., 1980) 121.

[6] Colossians 2:2-3, ESV. Emphasis mine.

[7] Paraphrase of John 17:3.

[8] Matthew 4:4, ESV.

[9] Genesis 1:28

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairly-Stories” in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1964) 37.

[11] Ibid., 56.

[12] ESV.

[13] 1 John 4:8.

[14] 1 John 4:21.

[15] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1974) 22.

[16] John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015) 20.

[17] Heidelberg Catechism, Q.6, cited by Kelly M. Kapic in “Anthropology”, in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, ed. Michael Allen & Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2016) 165. (emphasis mine).

[18] Genesis 3:6 ESV.

[19] Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1995) 30.

[20] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. III: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2006) 136.

[21] Ibid., 137.

[22] Ibid., 138.

[23] Ibid.

[24] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942) 68.

[25] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1958) 231.

[26] Ibid.

[27] 1 John 3:4 ESV.

[28] John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013) 851-52.

[29] Romans 1:21-23, ESV.

[30] Cornelius Plantinga Jr. Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1995) 21.

[31] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1944) 26.

[32] Romans 1:29-32, ESV.

[33] ESV.

[34] A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2001) 178.

[35] Romans 2:12-16, ESV.

[36] A. Andrew Das, Paul and the Jews (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003) 182.

[37] John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994) 86-87.

[38] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1958) 107.

[39] C. Steven Evans, A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018) 409.

[40] C.S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967) 91.

[41] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperColins Publishers, 1952) 3.

[42] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1974) 169.


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