Commands Vs. Relationships
After reflecting on a healthy view of sin, I would like to spend a little more time discussing where I think we go wrong in our understanding of what quantifies sin. Hopefully, I do not lose friends in the process. This has an inverse relationship then to how we define and quantify obedience.
Growing up it seemed like sin was solely defined by commands. Another way of putting this is the modern law forms much of early child development. Simply "do" or "don't." The generation I prefer to not identify with is springing up asking if Biblical commands exist for every Christian ethic. This approach essentially resolves to "Yes, then obey it. No? Then we will get back to you." This is unfortunate because a generation of pseudo-Christians is now bringing this style of argument about homosexuality and the legalization of marijuana.
This concept has always struck me as odd. It manifests in disagreements like whether or not Christian can lie in non-sinful ways. There is no direct commandment against lying and yet it seems to go against the very nature of God. What is a command-oriented Christian to think?
Thankfully, the church does not consistently think this way. Throughout the same period of being taught to think of sin in terms of commands, I was taught attitude matters. The imagery of the child obeying his parents with a bad attitude is etched into my mind. The moral of the story always that obedience with a poor attitude was still disobedience. This was probably more an interjection by concerned parents and pastors than a theological point. But as a theological point it certainly could help explain how Satan, bound to the will of God, remains in perpetual disobedience. It does not matter if he or his demons have faith (James 2:19), they will solely ever do so while rejecting His Lordship. So we would be right to call Satan's submission to Christ's Lordship sin because internally He rejects Christ's Lordship.
All this means is that sin is not about commands. But this does not mean we can ignore commands. Commands are a subset of what God has revealed to mankind. To get a healthy understanding of sin, we need to see it as fundamentally our relationship/response to God's revelation. When God speaks our physical/external responses are driven by our internal responses. If we receive God's revelation and trust Him we call that obedience. Sometimes we receive His revelation and struggle with doubt and subsequent disobedience. Sometimes we reject what He reveals while still going through the motions of obedience. And finally, sometimes we both reject what He reveals and express our disobedience externally.
This is crucial in helping us expand the gap between what is sinful and what is ethical/moral. Understanding sin to be a rejection of God's revelation allows us to say much more about sin. It also allows us to affirm ethical/moral activity from non-believers (I will not be getting into the apologetic discussion of ethics apart from the existence of God).
Relational, not Ontological
We must focus on God's revelation as the center of sin. With this underneath us, we can look at sin as relational not merely ontological. This means that a specific behavior can be sin or not sin based upon an individual's attitude towards God's revelation (1 Cor 10:23; Titus 1:5). Caveat. Some behavior will always be sin because its basis is a rejection of God's revelation. To reiterate and state simply — sin is about our relationship to God's revelation. Sin is our rejection of His revelation.
How does this re-paint the garden? Adam and Eve's sin was not eating. That was the external manifestation of the true "original sin." The eating was the breaking of the commandment which was the fundamental way Israel thought of sin. Christ's teaching returns us to the understanding of the heart for or against God. Through Christ we see the original sin was the rejection of God's word about the tree. In rejecting God's revelation, they decided to believe in unbelief. They rejected the Lordship of God. This then expressed itself in eating the fruit. So we can summarize — sin does not come apart from a rejection of God's revelation. Paul's language in Romans 5:13 and Romans 7:9 slowly begins to make a lot more sense.
What does this mean in terms of total depravity? When Adam and Eve were removed from the presence of God there was a quantifiable difference in the relationship between man and God. As federal heads, Adam and Eve were our representation before God in His temple. In their rejection access to eternal life (knowledge and experience of God Himself) was cut off. Paul's reflection that sin spread to all men (Rom 5:12) can be subsumed in men suppress the truth or revelation (Rom 1:18). In Romans 1:18-32 Paul lays down the ultimate "know God" (revelation) but "reject God" (sin).
My contention is that in rejecting God's revelation any activity is rightfully called a sin. I believe that Paul addresses this later in Romans when he speaks of sin being activity apart from faith (Rom 14:23). I also believe the author of Hebrews addressed this from the perspective of faith making obedience pleasing to God (Heb 11:6). Total depravity then is nothing more than rejecting God's revelation of who He is and living one's life (ultimately) for the glorification of self. Thinking this way it is significantly easier to understand how "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen 6:5). This statement can be true today for even the most moral/ethical of individuals so long as they reject the revelation of God (namely Jesus Christ).
It should quickly be stated that I am not denying total depravity. I am just not placing it in the biology or makeup of a person. Total depravity is something we are born into by way of a severed relationship with God. I am affirming sin as rebellion against God. I am just not rooting sin in the ontology of the act (though some acts remain sin no matter our attitude toward God). This frees us to see how a baptized, and restored, individual ultimately is incomparably distinct from an unregenerate individual. For the former, this restored relationship to God makes obedience not only possible but (pardon the phrase) easy.