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Old Testament Foundations: A Biblical View of the Relationship of Sin and the Fruits of Sin: Sickness, Demonization, Death, Natural Calamity, by Peter H. Davids

 

Sin and the Fruit of Sin in the New Testament

Sin is not taken any less seriously in the New Testament than in the Old. At the same time there is a more complex picture in that the role of Satan is far more important. Evil and misfortune which might have been attributed directly to God in the Old Testament are now attributed to Satan. Likewise, the connection between sin and disease and personal disaster, which only begins to break down in the Old Testament (Job being the chief example), is relativized even more. Still, while one must be more careful in attributing causation to personal sin in a New Testament perspective, the teaching that evil is the result of sin in the world is never challenged.

 

Sin Leading to Broken Relationships and Social Dysfunction

As in the Old Testament, social dysfunction in the New Testament is the result of sin. Rom 1:18-32 traces this out. Idolatry leads to sexual dysfunction, either heterosexual (assuming that is the point of 1:24) or homosexual. Finally there comes a list of a series of evils, many of which are indicative of social breakdown (e.g. murder, strife, deceit, disobedient to parents),9 all of which are traced to the original sin of the rejection of God.

 

Sin Leading to Natural Calamity

Natural disasters are rarely traced directly to sin in the New Testament10 until one comes to Revelation. There one finds famine (Rev 6:6) and a series of other natural disasters (Rev 8:7-10) depicted as judgments of God. The fact that the text repeatedly indicates that those not killed by the disasters “did not repent of [idolatry]. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts” (Rev 9:20-21, NRSV, is only one example) shows the connection between sin and the result of sin—the disasters sent by God—in the mind of the prophet.

 

Sin and Poverty

Unlike the Old Testament, poverty is not directly connected to sin in the New Testament. In other words, there is neither a clear promise of sufficiency based on obedience nor a warning of lack as a result of disobedience. Such a warning may be implied in the connection of sowing to reaping in such passages as 2 Cor 9:6 and Gal 6:7, but this is a far less direct connection than in the Old Testament. The New Testament promises of provision appear far more unconditional (e.g. 2 Cor 9:10-11; but cf. Mat 6:33). At the same time, the Old Testament point-of-view is reflected in a number of ways. First, poverty is connected to oppression in places like Jas. 5:1-6. Second, there is the reflection in some New Testament books of the Armenfrömigkeit (intrinsic piety attributed to the poor) of the intertestamental period (the period between the Old and New Testament periods). In Luke, for example, while the poor are blessed, the rich are cursed. (Luke 6:20, 24); in James Christians are called “poor”, but are never called “rich.” Third, the kingdom of God is pictured as a place of plenty, whether the kingdom is the heavenly kingdom (e.g. Luke 6:21; Rev. 7:16) or the more limited earthly expression (e.g. Mark 10:29-30 and other promises of present provision).11 In a world without sin (i.e. the kingdom) there would not be any poverty.

 

Sin Leading to Sickness

Like poverty, sickness is viewed in the New Testament as a fruit of sin. While this is true in general in that death came into the world through sin (Rom 5:12), it is also true in specific individual situations. In John 5:14 Jesus meets the man whom he healed at the pool and tells him to stop sinning “or something worse may happen to you.” Certainly in the context the implication is that the “something worse” is an illness.12 Less clear is the situation of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. In this case Jesus forgives the sins of the man when he sees the faith of those who brought the man to him. While this authority to forgive sin may be the reason Mark included the story (since it begins a series of conflicts between Jesus and the interpreters of the law), it does not appear likely that Jesus was simply using the sick man to make a point (did he ever use people for his purposes, or did he meet the person’s need, which sometimes allowed him to make a further point?). It is certainly possible, perhaps probable that the reason for forgiving sins was that sin was the root problem of the man and only with the sin taken care of could the sickness be healed (cf. Jas 5:16 “Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed”).13

There are a number of places in the New Testament in which sin is connected to specific sicknesses. Paul in 1 Cor 11:27-30 connects impropriety at the Lord’s Supper to “many” being “weak and sick” and “a number” having died. While the situation is far more blatant, the sicknesses of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:23) and Elymas Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:8-12) are connected to specific sins.14

Naturally, personal sin is not the only cause of illness. The New Testament makes this fact clear. When asked about a blind man in John 9:1-3, Jesus responds that neither the sins of the man nor those of the parents had caused him to be born blind.15 Notice that he does not deny that such sins could cause illness in a child, but instead simply states that this was not the situation in this case. That means that no absolute equation of sickness = personal sin in either the sick individual or a near relative is valid. Jas. 5:15 is a similar case in point. While Jas. 5:16 states that Christians should confess their sins to one another and pray for one another so that they might be healed, connecting sin to sickness, Jas. 5:14-15 states that a person will be healed when the elders pray a prayer of faith and “anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (NRSV). The construction is very clear. If sin is a cause of the sickness, it will be forgiven. But the “if” (kan Jas 5:15) is the important term.16 While personal sin is a possible cause of the sickness, it is not the only possibility. If it is present to forgive, it will be forgiven, but one cannot make the simple equation sickness = personal sin. Discernment is needed.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2006

About the Author: Peter H. Davids is a visiting professor of Christianity at Houston Baptist University and part-time professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology. He has taught biblical studies at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) and Canadian Theological Seminary (Regina, Saskatchewan), and he continues to teach in theological schools in Europe. He is the author of commentaries on James and 1 Peter. He is the New Testament editor of the Word Biblical Commentary series, the translator (from German) of Reinhard Feldmeier, 1 Peter (Baylor, 2008), and has also been part of several Bible translation projects (including The New Living Translation, The Voice, and The Common English Bible). Davids’ passion for the church has been expressed in his deep church involvement. He served as a Plymouth Brethren US Army Chaplain for 5 years, then an Episcopal priest for 34 years. He is presently a Catholic priest in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Faculty page Ministry page

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