Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
(Psalm 51 ESV)
We hear a lot these days in our cultural conversations the terminology of “structural or systemic sin” from News headlines, political commentators, and political activists. As Christians, what are we to make of this? Is structural or systemic sin real or Marxist ideology? The short of the answer is both yes and no.
Sin is first and foremost personal. King David, as he confesses his personal transgressions of adultery and murder in Psalm 51, also acknowledges the radical nature of his sinfulness. David was born a sinner, conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity in his mother’s womb. David is saying that he was a sinner, not because he sinned; David sinned, because he was a sinner. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it this way:
Q25. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate into which man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.
What both Scripture teaches and the Westminster divines reiterate is that man was created righteous, but because of Adam’s first sin, man fell from his original righteousness, making him both guilty of Adam’s first sin and making him corrupt. When the divines say that all of humanity is guilty of Adam’s sin, they are speaking of the doctrine of Imputed Unrighteousness. One of the Scriptures the divines used as a proof-text is from Romans 5:12, 19:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Imputed Unrighteousness means that even though you and I did not personally commit Adam’s transgression (i.e., we did not partake of the fruit offered by Satan), we are nonetheless guilty of Adam’s transgression, treated as though we had done it. And not only are we guilty of Adam’s sin, we are also personally corrupted because of Adam’s sin; this personal corruption is called Original Sin where we are “wholly inclined to all evil….from which do precede all actual transgressions.” In short, each and every sinner is held responsible for his or her own personal sin and will give an account of that sin on the Day of Judgment. This is bad news, but there is good news. The good news is that God has accomplished salvation through Jesus on the cross. On the cross, our sins were imputed to Jesus (Jesus was treated as though he committed our sins, judged for our sins), and Jesus’ perfect righteousness was imputed to us by faith, and faith alone. That’s the good news of the kingdom of God: we are forgiven and set free from the penalty of sin.
This is the personal notion of sin in relation to the gospel taught in Scripture. However, related to the personal is the social: sin is also pervasive within social structures and social systems. When we sin we not only sin personally, but also corporately. Personal sin pervades every sphere of human life and society. Sin (like cancer) metastasizes, spreading to everything we touch in human life and society; laws, politics, policies, customs, ideologies, etc.—everything is corrupted by sin. The Bible calls this institutionalization and routinization of sin the World or this present Age. A good example of the structural and systemic notion of sin is abortion. The murder of a baby in the mother’s womb not only involves the personal sins of the mother and the abortion doctor, but also the corporate and structural sins of institutions and larger systems such as Planned Parenthood, the legal decision of Roe v. Wade, etc. Sinful systems in the past were Antebellum Slavery, Jim Crow, the Indian Removal Act, etc. As Al Mohler says, “The relationship between individual sin and structural sin is thus reciprocal. Individual sin eventually takes structural form. The structures then both facilitate and rationalize ongoing and expanding individual sin.” In short, personal sin and corporate sin feed upon each other. Scripture calls this evil tandem the world and the flesh.
In conclusion, the biblical notion of structural or systemic sin is real. We, the church, must speak against evil in all its forms, both personally and structurally. On judgment Day, Jesus too will destroy both the world and all sinful flesh, but until then we must proclaim the gospel. The gospel is the only answer to sin. Next month, I will discuss the unbiblical notions of structural or systemic sin that is rampant in our culture and on our news today, and relate this to the truth of the gospel.