According to the Bible, sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4), with lawlessness understood as the transgression of the law of God. God's law is an expression of the character of God. What is right and lawful is right because He has determined (from all eternity), that it is so, just as two plus two equals four according to God's judgment.
© June 2006 By D. Eric Williams
When Man was created he was sinless but with the capacity to choose for himself whether he would obey God's commands or not. We may conjecture that God provided Adam with a variety of directives concerning how he should live life in the garden; we know, for instance, that Adam was enjoined to be fruitful and multiply and to take dominion over the created order. He was told to cultivate and keep or guard the garden as well. In addition, Adam and Eve were commanded to refrain from eating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
There has been much speculation concerning the nature of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This speculation can be (roughly), divided into two points of view; the tree had some intrinsic ability to produce knowledge in the one who ate of it, or, the tree was nothing significant in and of itself and it was the commandment of God that carried the significance. It is my view that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was no different that any other fruit tree. As Cornelius Van Til has written;
God chose one tree from among many and "arbitrarily" told man not to eat of it. It is in this connection that we must speak of the necessity of natural revelation. If the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been naturally different from other trees it could not have served its unique purpose. That the commandment might appear as supernatural the natural had to appear as really natural. The supernatural could not be recognized for what it was unless the natural were also recognized for what it was. There had to regularity if there was to be a genuine exception.1
In other words, if the tree had been special, then the command would have been merely an attempt to keep man from gaining what God already had. The command would not have been supernatural but merely an attempt to guard the special knowledge that allowed the natural to ascend to a higher level. However, since the tree was not special, the command was intended to teach man that submission to God must be based upon the fact that He is the Absolute Other, the Creator and sovereign Lord. He is not merely one who has (through efforts we may duplicate), ascended to a higher plane. To say that the tree of knowledge bestowed the eater with special knowledge is a form of Gnosticism, suggesting that special knowledge is what man lacks, rather than a heart of submission to the Creator. Thus the command to refrain from eating of the tree was designed to teach mankind that he must always obey in every way the mandates of the Creator.
We may like to think that a newborn baby is innocent and untouched by sin. But due to Adam's offense all of mankind is inherently sinful. Every human being born into this world has - from the time of their conception - a sin nature (Ps. 51:5). This is the legacy of Adam's failure to obey God (Rom. 5:12). In addition to his inborn sin nature, every human being is guilty of their own acts of sin (Rom. 3:10, 23). Even the newborn baby actively sins in that their every action is focused on the gratification of self. Certainly we excuse the selfish conduct of a baby; we do not hold an infant responsible for desiring warmth, food and security or meet out punishment for his infantile behavior when he demands attention to his needs. At the same time, we cannot fall into the trap of granting purity to the infant simply because he does not understand the selfish nature of his behavior. Obviously the baby's behavior does not warrant punishment; rather it calls for training in godliness. Yet the realization that a child must be trained away from his infantile conduct is an acknowledgment that his behavior is sinful.
Sin affects every aspect of the human condition. This is what we mean when we say that mankind is totally depraved. Total depravity does not mean that Man is completely sinful in every aspect of His being, but that every aspect of his being is soiled by sin.
A thing may be totally corrupt in extent (that is the corruption, rottenness, or depravity may be found in every part). Or a thing may be corrupt in every degree (that is, the depravity may be absolute; as bad as bad can be).2
This is why we see the unregenerate do things that may objectively be called "good." Even though sin has touched every part of their being, by the (common), grace of God they are able to perform deeds of charity, acts of kindness and altruism. Nevertheless these feeble works of goodness do not win favor with the Creator. The Bible clearly states that without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6), and any acts of goodness on the part of the unregenerate are performed in the absence of faith and any such works cannot save him (Rom. 3:20).
The Bible tells us that apart from Christ we are slaves to sin and that the wages of sin is death. The Scripture also says that there is no escape from this enslavement and death except in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:6, 16, 23, Acts 4:12). There is absolutely nothing we can do in our own strength to rid ourselves of our sin nature or to keep ourselves from committing personal sins. The only hope for conquering sin is in Jesus Christ. Unless a man is washed by the blood if Jesus Christ, his lawlessness - his sin nature and personal sins - will condemn him to an eternity in hell (Rom. 5:8-10, Heb. 9:16-28).