In addition to having a proper and realistic definition of sin, we also need to have a proper understanding of the nature of sin.
The Bible makes it clear that man is a sinner by inheritance. The Adventist pioneers including Ellen White support this fact. A question remains, however, just how was this sinfulness was passed on from Adam to his descendants. Was “sin in the flesh” the presence of something transferred to us in our genes or was it the result of something which was taken from us because of Adam's sin? Does sin in the flesh reside only in the genes, limited to the degeneracy of flesh and blood, or does it impact also upon the mind and the spirit? Is man depraved simply because his literal flesh is weak or is he inherently evil in his spiritual makeup?
It seems evident that this sinful corruption includes more than merely the physical makeup of man for the following reasons:
a. The Bible says that all men were made sinners by Adam's sin (Rom 5:12,19). If this status was only on the basis of man's physical degeneracy, then it would mean that Jesus was also a sinner since he partook of man's physical heritage, being “made of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3),” having taken upon him “the seed of Abraham (Heb. 2:16),” having been made “in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3).” But since Jesus was not a sinner, then it cannot be the flesh which we inherit which makes us sinners.
b. When we are born again we lose the status of sinners. We are no more condemned and in fact sin has lost its power over us (Rom. 5:1; 6:14). However, we still exist in the same physical bodies. There is no change to the literal bodies. Therefore, it is clear that the change which takes us from being sinners to saints is not a bodily change.
c. Paul says that we should be transformed by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2). This makes it clear that the real problem and the seat of sin, is the mind and not the body.
If we can understand what happened when Adam and Eve sinned, then we will have a better understanding of the nature of sin.
When Adam disobeyed God and partook of the forbidden fruit, what happened to him? What happened to change him from being a perfect man to a lost sinner? God had told him that in the day that he should eat of the fruit, in that day he should die. What did God mean by that and was the sentence carried out that day? We tend to think that God changed His mind or that the provision made by Christ cancelled God's decree, but in actual fact, God's decree was in a sense carried out that very day. Let us notice two things which happened.
First of all, Adam became immediately aware of the fact that he was naked and became afraid of God. His relationship to God changed. Secondly, he immediately began to degenerate physically. His life force began to run down and eventually ran out when he was nine hundred and thirty years old.
But it is the spiritual change which took place in Adam which is of most interest to us. The Bible describes man in his natural state as being dead.
(Eph 2:1) And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins:
(Eph 2:5) Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
(Col 2:13) And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
Alienated from the life of God, sold under sin, the slave to evil nature, habits and desires, man is spiritually dead. The question is, how and when did man get into that condition? From what we have seen already, this is the natural inheritance which we receive from Adam. When he sinned, he died a spiritual death and this is a part of the legacy which he passes on to his descendants. But what is this spiritual death? Is there some way that we can describe it more fully?
God alone is good
Let us take note of an indisputable truth. God alone is good. This is what Jesus taught and if we can understand and appreciate the significance of this, most of our difficulties with this question will be over. It stands to reason that if God alone is good, then all that is outside of Him is evil or sinful. The only way in which any creature in the universe may ever become good is if he is united to God, or has the life of God within Him. Does this make sense? If this is not true, then it would mean that anywhere we see anyone who is good, then we would have a right to believe that that person is God. But since there is only one God and He alone is good, wherever we see good, then we know that God is dwelling within that individual, not that that person is God.
Now the Bible testifies that when God created the world, everything was “very good.” This included Adam. In this sinless, “good,” state, it is obvious that Adam had the spirit of God dwelling within him and this was manifested in the perfect love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5:22,23) which were manifested in his life. When he disobeyed God an immediate change was apparent. His peace was gone, his love was marred, he immediately began to accuse his wife, his joy was gone, he became afraid and unhappy. This can only be because the spirit of God had departed from him. In effect, Adam became spiritually dead and this happened to him immediately. He did in fact die that very day, just as God had warned him would happen. While physical death came upon him slowly, spiritual death was immediate.
Adam's subsequent sinful state was not as a result of his degenerate, dying body, (sinful body)but rather, because he was spiritually dead (sinful spirit or mind), cut off from the life of God.
We should note that Paul sometimes refers to the source of our problem as being “sinful flesh,” “the body of sin,”or other similar terms. However, the context of his statements make it plain that he is speaking not of the biological flesh, but rather of the fleshly or carnal mind (Rom. 8:7) which is the real source of our sinfulness.
Of course, we believe that Adam subsequently repented and was restored to God's favour (through Christ), but the disadvantages which he had introduced upon himself and into the world now made it difficult to maintain that relationship with God where righteousness was his lifestyle. What had been his natural way of existence could now only be maintained by faith the maintaining of which required a constant battle with distractions and the deceptions and distortions of the devil.
This then is the legacy which Adam has passed on to his descendants and this is the real source of sin. It is the fact that we are born without the spirit of God, in a condition of spiritual death where the only option available to us (until we are born again), is the option to commit sin continually.
The natural instinct of one who is completely forsaken is the instinct to defend self. When Adam was the favoured child of God he was perfectly secure. His food was provided in abundance, he had no fear, no insecurities, he had no need to think of himself. Even though Eve was the only other person alive, all his energies were outwardly directed. He lived only for God and his fellow man (woman). However, when he rebelled against God, suddenly all his security was removed. His covering was gone, he had lost his home, he had lost God's presence and favour, he lost his assurance of life and suddenly he was scared for himself. Without the spirit of God that was all he could do. Suddenly his energies were directed to his own survival, to his own well-being. He became selfish and was ready to accuse even the very wife with whom he had been prepared to die a few moments before.
There will never be a time that the absence of God's spirit will not bring self-centeredness. When God's spirit is absent, there is no option available except self-centeredness (the need to protect, to justify, to exalt, to defend, to take care of self). It was the evident focus of fallen Lucifer, it was the first instinct of Adam and Eve after they fell. When we understand this it becomes evident that the root, the source of sin is ultimately self-centeredness and that it is this quality inherent in the nature of the man outside of God which makes him a sinner.
Some imagine that if Satan were destroyed our sinning would come to an end. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. By far the greater percentage of sins which people commit are not directly attributable to Satan at all, but to their own sinful nature. Satan may tempt and annoy us, but even though he is the first being who opened the door for the entrance of sin into the universe, he is not the only one who has found that door.