5 Types of Sin - Theological Footnotes 18


Theological Footnotes

I am a pastor-theologian and author creating resources to help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. My goal is to make Christian theology comprehensible so that it will build up the church. I write and publish books through Peniel Press.

Hello Reader,

Thank you for joining us for this issue of Theological Footnotes. I have an original theological reflection for you below, where I draw from Zacharius Ursinus to think pastorally about counseling people on sin.

We are also moving into digital "singles" of some of the chapters from our books, so that those who have not bought the entire book can get their feet wet. These singles are also a great, low-cost way for you to share about our work with others and spread the word about Peniel Press. If someone shared this issue with you and you would like to receive it in your own inbox, you can sign up by clicking here.

5 Different Categories of Sin

No one really likes talking about sin. I am even a bit squeamish to write about it, because Christians in the Reformed tradition often have a reputation for being “big on sin.” I am very conscious of the ways my predecessors (and contemporaries!) in the church have often used sin as a bludgeon to beat and bruise the weak. However, we also do damage to our faith and to our church by refusing to talk about sin. Sin is serious and dangerous. The devil is crafty and we are masters at self-justification. As much clarity as possible is beneficial for the church as we seek to work out our salvation. The depth of sin also demonstrates the depths of God’s love for us in sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us from sin and death.

In my own pastoral work, I have benefited recently from translating Zacharius Ursinus’ The Body of Doctrine: A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. In his section on Lord’s Day 3, Ursinus spends almost 6,000 words making some careful distinctions in how we talk about sin. I want to summarize his five distinctions for you below and then reflect on which one I think is most important for us to recover in the life of the church.

Ursinus claims there are five major divisions of sin:

1. Original v. Actual Sin

“Original Sin” is the guilt of the whole human race on account of the sin of Adam and Eve. From our first parents, it flows into the entire human race, so that each person is born in original sin. Like the origin or headwaters of a river, if poisoned, would cause all the water downstream to be tainted, the sin of our first parents has poisoned all their descendants (unless redeemed by Christ). “Actual Sin” are those desires and actions that conflict with the law of God. Actual sins flow from Original Sin (from our corrupt nature), but are also learned by imitation and done through the act of free will.

2. Reigning v. Not-Reigning Sin

“Reigning sin” are those sins or sinful desires that we do not fight against, but instead they reign over us. These are sins enslave us and hold power over us. “Not Reigning Sin” are those sins which we struggle and fight against by the grace of the Holy Spirit. No Christian is completely free of sin, but must struggle against it daily. The sins still exist in our life, but they do not enslave us or have power over us. The sins that befall Christians in weakness, ignorance, or even those disordered desires, when they are fought against, are ‘not-reigning sins.’

3. Sin against the Conscience and Sin not against the Conscience

Sins against the conscience are those sins we commit when we knew they were sins. Our conscience was convicted, but we did it anyway. Sins not against the conscience are sins done unknowingly or unwillingly or that we lamented over. Paul’s persecution of the church was done in ignorance (1 Tim 1:13) and later lamented over. These are often sins of momentary weakness, instead of premeditated sins against our conscience.

4. Forgivable and Unforgivable Sin

Any sin which might be repented of is forgivable. Only the sin against the Holy Spirit (or the sin unto death) is considered unforgivable, because Jesus explicitly says so in Matthew 12:32 and Mark 3:29. Ursinus makes clear that “It is called unforgivable, not because it is so great it surpasses the value of Christ’s merit, but because whoever commits it is punished with final blindness, and does not receive the gift of repentance. Because it is a unique kind of sin, it is followed by a unique punishment, final blindness and a lack of repentance.” It is not the depth of the sin, but the inability to repent of it that makes it unforgivable.

5. Sin in itself and Sin by accident

Something is a ‘sin in itself’ whenever it is a desire or action that is contrary to God’s Law. When we break God’s law, it is a sin. Full stop. However, something can also be a ‘sin by accident.’ These could be actions that, on the outside, are in accordance with God’s Law, but come from a heart that does not love, trust, and want to serve God. We do the right thing, but not “out of true faith” and “for God’s glory” (Q91). Something could also be a sin by accident if it is a matter of indifference in Scripture, but it tempts someone else to sin (think of Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols). “Sins by accident” are not automatically sins, but become sinful when either our hearts are not in the right place or our weaker neighbor is led astray by them.

Recovering the Fight Against Sin

Each of these five distinction is worth reflecting on in our life in Christ, but, pastorally, I believe that the distinction between reigning and not-reigning sin might be the most important for us to recover.

When it comes to issues of sin, I often hear the phrase, “Look, everyone is a sinner and no sin is greater or worse than another. We shouldn’t be plucking the dust out of another’s eye when there is a long in our own.” Fair enough. Everything in that statement is true. However, such a statement is often used to ignore the distinction between reigning and not-reigning sin. It is true that everyone is a sinner and that all sins are mortal sins (deserving of death). However, it is misleading to suggest that all sins are equally spiritual dangerous for Christians.

When we have sins in our life that we do not repent of or struggle against, it is spiritually dangerous for us. Sin deserves judgment and sin separates us from God. We will never be completely free of it in this life, but when we not only refuse to fight against sin, but actively embrace it, we place ourselves in spiritual danger. King David and King Omri were both sinners, but David fought against and repented of his sin (Ps 51), while Omri “did more evil than all who were before him.” It is not so much that they were sinners (or even how bad their sins were, for David’s sins were great), but whether they fought against and repented of their sin or ran joyfully into it.

Each culture, often each church, and even each individual Christian has practices that Scripture speaks clearly on as sins, but that are largely ignored. For some it is greed. Jesus speaks about this frequently, but many Christians are more in line with Gordon Gecko than Jesus (“Greed is, for lack of a better word, good”). It is not just that our society embraces and celebrated greed, but that Christians are then tempted not to struggle against their disordered desires for wealth, status, and power. For others it is sexual immorality. Much that Scripture clearly declares as sin is openly embraced and celebrated in the West, which leads many Christians - who should be actively struggling with their disorders actions and desires - to have sin reigning in them.

By recovering the language of reigning and not reigning sin, we can move past the truism that “all people are sinners” to actively counseling our brothers and sisters not to let sin reign in their bodies and hearts, and to fight that fight ourselves.

New "Single" from Rooted

Back in 2022, we published our first book, Rooted: Growing in Christ in a Rootless Age. One of the most popular chapters from the book was Chapter 7, "God's Scattered People," where I explored the exile in Babylon as a window into thinking about the challenges of living in a digital age and what faithfulness might look like.

As a way of helping new readers get into our work, I have released the chapter as a "single" from the book. We are operating on a "pay what you can model" so that if people want to get the chapter for only $1, they can, but if you want to or are able to pay more, you can. We can to keep our work accessible, while also giving people the opportunity for generosity.

If you already have Rooted, you can buy the chapter for a friend or send them this email so they can check it out for themselves. We are hoping this model is successful and we can replicate it with other work.


God's Scattered People - Rooted Single

How do we live faithfully in this age of digital distraction? Israel's exile in Babylon created similar challenges to... Read more

Writing Updates

One of my goals for this year was to write, translate, or edit 100,000 words. As I finished writing this newsletter, I just hit 12,897 words. We are still relatively on pace to reach 100K. I appreciate all your encouragement and I hope this goal will lead to several great books available to you this year.

Currently, all of my word count has been in translating The Body of Doctrine. I am almost finished with his commentary on Lord's Day 3 (by far one of the longest sections in the book) and will only have a shorter section on Lord's Day 4 before finishing up Part I of the book. Then I will switch to putting all my effort into editing The Sinews of Scripture, and will hopefully put out a few singles for you to check out in advance.

We finished How to Dress a T-Rex at the end of January and ordered an advanced copy to see if everything turned out as expected, but mail delivery is super slow across the border. Once we get eyes on a copy, we will make the book available for purchase on all the major retailers.

We appreciate your prayers for the work we are doing in providing theological resources for the church. One of the best ways to support us to buy our books and tell your friends to do the same. However, if you'd like to contribute in other ways, you can always buy me a coffee.

From the desk of

Stephen C. Shaffer

Author, Pastor-Theologian


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Theological Footnotes

I am a pastor-theologian and author creating resources to help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. My goal is to make Christian theology comprehensible so that it will build up the church. I write and publish books through Peniel Press.