Sin, the word, has almost become cliché these days; we almost, even in the church, in many ways, think of it in cavalier terms; maybe only because we have been exposed to it so much (for those who have been in the church for any length of time). But sin continues to persist as a real life destructive element in the world, systemically, and in our lives personally; one might even say sin is a rather apocalyptic reality, albeit with personal and concrete implications in each and every person’s life. With hopes of getting beyond the shallow conceptions of sin we have come to adopt in our evangelical contexts, I am hoping that sharing the following will at least point up the fact that there is much more going on with the concept of sin, both theologically and biblically, than we often are wont to realize.
A former seminary professor and mentor of mine, Ron Frost, wrote is PhD dissertation on a theology of grace; particularly as that was given expression in the English Puritan context, and even more focusedly, in the theologies of two Puritans: William Perkins and Richard Sibbes. In the following lengthy quote from Frost we will see how sin, as a doctrine, was developed by Perkins and Sibbes, respectively; the former holds to the privative view, and the latter to the positive (or affective) view of sin. After this quote I will close with some of my own thoughts on how this understanding, diverse as it is, might impact our lives in personal ways, as Christians, as we walk and live in this present evil age. Frost writes:
Some final observations may be made about the positive and privative views of sin. The two approaches differ fundamentally on the reason for sin; while man is identified as responsible for sin in both views, he tends to be portrayed more as a pliable innocent overcome by the serpent’s deceit in the privative model. It is Adam presented as inadequate, not because he was unable to fulfill the law, but, because, in his mutability as a creature, he was vulnerable to moral change. This the serpent exploited while God was willfully away. In scholastic terms, the formal cause of sin was twofold, given the double causality associated with God’s sovereignty. God, as the primary agent for all things, determined the outcome by his withdrawal. In this he was arbitrary but just. The second agent, Adam, failed to apply the grace he had available and thus was culpable for his own fall, albeit as something of a victim. In both considerations the issue of grace is pivotal in its absence. For the privative model, as seen in both Thomistic and Reformed theology, this leads to a greater emphasis on the acquisition and application of grace in hypostatized or commodity-like terms, and a tendency toward Aristotelian moralism — the establishing of one’s righteousness through righteous actions based on grace. To the degree that grace becomes an impersonal quality, the greater the impression one has that something worthy of appreciation, if not merit, is being accomplished.
The doctrine of positive sin, on the other hand, rejects any tendency to see man as a victim; Adam is always the culprit in that he willfully replaced the Creator with the creature as the object of absolute devotion. It also recognizes human mutability as a fact which allows the fall, but rejects it as a meaningful explanation. The fall, in positive sin, remains an impenetrable mystery; Adam is not portrayed as deceived and God is not portrayed as withholding grace. In the positive model sin is always a competition: Adam seeks to usurp God’s role while God confounds Adam’s autonomy.
Thus, the most important difference between the two models is found in the way God is portrayed. In the privative view, as Aquinas and Perkins have it, he remains a supplier of grace — withholding what is needed for salvation except to the elect. He even remains parsimonious to the elect but, as their efforts prevail, is increasingly generous. In the positive view, on the other hand, he is an enemy until conversion which comes by the Spirit’s direct intervention. He invites the elect to see God as he really is: righteous, strong, and loving. Conversion, in fact, is a litmus for the two views: the privative model generally adopts a catechetical process which culminates in an affirmation of faith. The positive model, while recognizing that the Spirit uses prevenient stirrings, expects a more distinct Paul-light conversion which displays the moment in which selfish autonomy melts before God’s self disclosure. For the one, nature remains very much in view; for the other, God, once unveiled by grace, dominates the scene.
The importance of the affections for Sibbes and the nomists differed in profound ways. For Sibbes the affections were both the avenue by which sin entered the world and the avenue by which God, through the Spirit, restores the fallen soul. Slavery of the will was seen to be an enslavement by one’s own desires, something broken only by transforming vision of God as more desirable than anything human autonomy offers. Perkins and the nomists, on the other hand, saw the affections as a subordinate element of the will; they also provided a suitable theology for the prominent will by adopting the Thomist privation-enablement model of sin and grace.
Perkins and the nomists thus established human responsibility as the center-theme of salvation; the moral law became the locus of the soul in the process of sanctification. The belief that the covenant of grace is essentially a legal contract shaped all spirituality into a restorative stance: life is seen as an effort to regain and sustain Adam’s original obedience through the Spirit-enabled will. This generated a Christology which emphasized the juridical work of Christ to the point that, for pastoral ministry, the purpose of restored communion was easily reduced into the preaching of moralist endeavor.
Against this view, Sibbes, in line with Augustine, emphasized the place of Christ as much more than the source of justification, but primarily as one to be loved. The promise of the indwelling Spirit, whose ministry in Christ’s life is now allocated to the Christian, gives promise of a greater hope than the nomists offered: full and eternal intimacy of the Godhead through a true, although mystical, union with Christ. The feet of the soul are the affections and the affections are meant for communion with God.
Consequent to this summarization, Frost argues and maintains that the doctrine of sin that is present in the theologies of Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed Orthodoxy, and in some of the English and American Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames is actually Pelagian in orientation; that sin in the privative model sees grace as an abstract created substance that God progressively gives to the elect as they cooperate with it, and God, in overcoming the ‘nothingness’ of sin in their lives. Contrariwise, in the positive model, as Frost summarizes, grace is seen as personified in the person of the Holy Spirit, and sin is not a ‘nothingness,’ per se, but instead an absence and lack of God’s life in the elect individual’s life; the remedy to this, so to speak, is for a person to come into union with Christ and participate in God’s life—thus filling in, not only the lack of God’s life, but also reversing the bondage of self-love and homo in se incurvatus that plagues the human body and soul.
So how does any of this impact our daily walks as Christians? The first thing that a so called positive understanding of sin ought to do, is that it ought to personalize sin in such a way that sin is no longer understood as something that must be overcome by my performance or cooperation in grace with God. The focus then becomes one where the Christian looks to the person and work of Jesus Christ as their only hope and remedy for justification and salvation before God. Secondly, a positive view of sin invites the sinner to abandon anything that they might think they could muster up and offer to God (even if it is construed as grace-inspired in privative terms), and to count all their righteousness as but filthy rags. The hope and actual power available to the Christian at this point, in mortification and repentance, comes as the Christian can, like the Apostle Paul, count everything as rubbish, and rely solely upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ; they can rest in the union they have with Christ, and turn from their idolatry and no-gods, and look to the true and living God in Jesus Christ as their mediator and high priest. In other words, understanding sin in personal terms keeps things personal, and does not then collapse into the privative notion of sin that reduces to moralism and self-loathing with no real power to actually live a victorious Christian life.
In closing, there are some modifications, as an evangelical Calvinist, that I would make to Frost’s ‘affective’ model; but I think what Ron offers is very enriching and enlightening towards better understanding what informs our current conceptions of sin, and how those conceptions might impact our lives negatively or positively.
 Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, [unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, 1996 University of London Kings College], 94-96. Now published as: Ron Frost, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, WA: CorDeo Press, 2012).