Is Error in Doctrine Always Sin?

“If I feel that my friend is being sinful by teaching that we should baptize infants, I will want to go to great lengths to show him that he is sinning and to see him repent and correct his error. But if I believe that his belief in infant baptism is something less than sin, I can appreciate his conviction while not feeling the need to emphasize repentance and correction.”
Challies reflects on error that is sin and error that is just error.

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Charlie's picture

Strange for Challies. I don't see any argument at all. The only thing approaching it seems to be that he would rather emphasize unity than correction. There is no logical reason that believing wrongly about big doctrines is sin, but doing the same for little doctrines is not. His choice of baptism is striking and I think very quickly defeated. If credobaptism is commanded by Scripture, how can it not be sin to let virtually everyone who grows up in the church not be "scripturally baptized"? On the other hand, if paedobaptism is commanded by Scripture, the Baptist churches are sinning grievously by refusing to give the sign and seal of the covenant to all their covenant babies. By the way, the WCF specifically says that neglecting to baptize infants is a sin. So it really seems that Challies just doesn't want to deal with the issues.

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture


Interesting question though. I don't think we often think in terms of error vs. sin, especially as it relates to the whole question of separation from "erring brethren."
I didn't realize WCF (Westminster Confession of Faith, for those unfamiliar) was that specific on that point (unfortunate, from my POV).

Mike Durning's picture

Challies seems to imply that the teaching of doctrinal deviation can be less than the result of direct personal sin. And I would have agreed with him. In fact, I would very much like to agree with his article 100%. But I am preaching in I Timothy now.

I Timothy 6:3-5 seems to say that false teaching is a result of personal character issues that sound like descriptions of sin.
3If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,
4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions,
5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (ESV)

My exegesis thus far suggests that verses 3-5 are commentary on false teaching that had arisen over the slavery issue in verses 1-2. But it also seems that Paul is expanding beyond the bounds of that one issue in verses 3-5.

If so, then, as much as I struggle with the implications for the question Challies raises, I have to disagree with his conclusion.
And I very much want to know some borders on what is and is not doctrinal deviation.

Any help here? Anyone?

I sure don't want to spend time writing letters urging people like R.C. Sproul to repent if I can avoid it.

Sean Fericks's picture

I am not a theologian, but I have always heard sin defined as mankind's failure to meet God's perfection. If sin is defined such, then logically one of the competing doctrines is sinful (misses God's perfect truth), and the other may possibly be non-sinful. Perhaps you will correct my understanding of the biblical word "sin".

Dave G's picture

In a word, yes.

Doctrine as presented in God's Word is truth, while the rest is error. Deviation from truth points to the heart...could a regenerate heart and mind disobey the Saviour who bought them?
"Big Doctrines", "little doctrines"...all are doctrines if contained within God's Word.
Too many times I've seen where people who claim to be Christ's compromise with some worldly traditions, thoughts or ideas. Why is this?

IMO, definition of sin:

Mankind's failure to obey God from the heart.


Sola Scriptura, both mentally and physically.
That means no other books about Bible interpretation on my shelf, sorry...;)

1 John 2:27-29

ChrisC's picture

well it's not like modern credobaptism practices strictly follow from scripture either. no one waited x years after conversion. seemingly no one had an official meeting with the church leaders to verify conversion and a changed life before baptism.

Joseph's picture

The proposition here entertained ("that doctrinal belief is always sin") is absurd and monstrous in its implications. I use both "absurd" and "monstrous" advisedly.

Anyone who is conscious about their knowledge of church history or just human history should be horrified by the proposed statement.

Let's start with the monstrous implications, which have been illustrated all too many times in history, of the idea that doctrinal error is always sin.

Suppose, as some here entertain or actually seem to believe, that any error in doctrinal belief is a sin. Now what "is a sin" means is a muddle because no one has clarified it, but here, roughly, is what it clearly needs to mean. It needs to mean that holding the belief "that p" is somehow an action because actions are the things we are responsible for. We don't hold people responsible for being things unless we are implicitly deriving their being a certain way from their having acted a certain way. People are responsible for being drunk because they acted so as to make themselves drunk; and if they did not, if, somehow unbeknownst to them, they were given a huge amount of alcohol in their food and drink, we would not regard them as culpable, legally or morally, for their being drunk. Moreover, the connection has to be relatively direct, as in straightforward. That is, we can't say because someone is generally lazy that their failing to do x action was a result of their laziness. They might have got hit by a car on the way home and so could not do x like they planned, or a million other things could have happened. So, if we want to evaluate particular actions or states, like believing "that p" is the case, we can't appeal merely to general conditions. (I'm passing over a thicket of philosophical issues surrounding the relationship between beliefs and action to consider the implications of our supposition. I will say, though, that "direct voluntarism," the idea that beliefs are simply chosen, like choosing to pick up a coffee cup, is rarely held, so far as I can tell, in contemporary philosophy. Some reasons why should be obvious if you start thinking about acquiring a belief and how it differs from picking up you coffee cup.)

Now let's suppose that we happen to know (i.e., we think we know) that someone has some false doctrinal beliefs, or more likely a whole set of false doctrinal beliefs. Now, their having those beliefs is, granting our original supposition, itself a sin. That is, all those beliefs are on par with any other explicitly sinful set of actions, like yelling at your kids, being lazy, or whatever (I hope just describing this is showing how absurd this position is). Or, if we are feeling a bit milder and adopt Mike's read of Paul, we can and in fact should infer backwards from any false doctrinal belief to a certain sinful features of the person that, again, more or less directly account for their false belief.

Now, let's look at some broader implications and corollaries of this position, first with respect to others and then with respect to ourselves.

Since many people we know believe many things, including many doctrinal things, that we think are wrong, we must necessarily conclude that those beliefs are sins, on par with any other blatant and obvious sins, or the direct result of sins. We must also regard such people, in failing to acknowledge their sin, as culpably self-deceived. Thus these people in virtue of disagreeing with us become less moral, less virtuous, in the area of beliefs, than we are. This leads directly to the monstrous implications about ourselves.

Since no sane person knowingly regards any of their beliefs, including their doctrinal beliefs, to be false (indeed, it's probably impossible to make sense of this proposition:"I believe x, but I know x is false"), we are all of us in the position of regarding ourselves, tacitly if not consciously (and this position would encourage the conscious self-perception), as being morally better off, at least in one crucially important area, as Christians, than everyone who disagrees with us. Thus, we not only can but must, by force of entailment, infer that we are better people than those who disagree with us. The kind of pride and its effects this breeds and legitimates is a matter of history and the news. "You're wrong and thus immoral" is the comfort of every fanatic and the bane of every healthy argument.

Many other dreadful of logical implications of the original position could be expounded and terrible historical examples adduced. People can do that on their own.

In my opening sentence I said absurd and meant it, which is why I have presented a reductio ad absurdum of the position. It's a morally execrable idea that undermines humility with alacrity.

Moreover, it hides from sight any of the more relevant, sane issues that are related to this question, issues about belief-formation and virtue, the difference between false belief and false teaching (whose conflation would be the result if someone interpreted Paul's passage in 1 Tim. as dealing in any direct way with our topic). Genuinely excellent work has been done on these and related issues recently, and if anyone is interested I encourage you to google "virtue epistemology," which is one of the emerging positions in epistemology that is relevant to non-academics.

Thankfully, I don't believe error in general and doctrinal error in particular is a sin (which is not to say it can't be, or when it is, or how we could know - but these are different, more nuanced discussions that only matters if the original, dreadful notion that "all doctrinal error is sin" is off the table). That's one reason I argue with people rather than rebuke them with Scripture when I disagree. It's also why I don't think anyone here, merely because they disagree with about doctrinal matters (or any other matters), is sinful.

I understand the comfort that could be achieved in so believing; but it's an ultimately odious, self-righteous comfort that destroys any genuine Christian witness because it undermines key virtues of Christianity. The reason I am so confident about that what I've said is right and the odious proposition entertained on this thread is wrong is precisely because of its moral and theological entailments, which entailments directly and explicitly undermine beliefs and virtues I regard as central to Christianity.

So, the answer is a resounding no, and may God help us if we need to argue about this.

Sean Fericks's picture

ChrisC wrote:
well it's not like modern credobaptism practices strictly follow from scripture either. no one waited x years after conversion. seemingly no one had an official meeting with the church leaders to verify conversion and a changed life before baptism.

This is why my son was baptized the day of his conversion.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Sean nailed it in #4. It all comes down to understanding what sin is. Not that all sins are equally egregious, but even to think something that falls short of the glory of God is sin. It's true that we're told "sin is the transgression of the law," but all the law and prophets are summed up in the command to love God with all of our heart soul mind and strength. This love does not refer only to a subjective state of devotion (though includes that), but also how well we love in what we do. Teaching error in any form has to be inferior to teaching the truth and is, therefore, a failure to love perfectly and a sin.

That said, we shouldn't handle intentional sin and unintentional sin in the same way in our relationships with other believers.

Sean Fericks's picture

Joseph wrote:
Since many people we know believe many things, including many doctrinal things, that we think are wrong, we must necessarily conclude that those beliefs are sins, on par with any other blatant and obvious sins, or the direct result of sins. We must also regard such people, in failing to acknowledge their sin, as culpably self-deceived. Thus these people in virtue of disagreeing with us become less moral, less virtuous, in the area of beliefs, than we are. This leads directly to the monstrous implications about ourselves.
If sin is failure to meet God's perfection, is it possible that different sins miss God's mark by different degrees? Is ultimate morality hierarchical? I believe that baptizing unbelievers is a sin, but not one that damns the soul. The belief that Christ did not die for our sins and then rise from the dead is also a sin, but it does damn the soul.

Second, if the gospel is exclusive, then those who die without a hearing are damned. Certainly, this is one of the more horrific points of biblical doctrine. Yet it is biblical. Your train of thought, carried to absurdity, would possibly violate this doctrine.

Finally, when we acknowledge that the standard is God's perfection, every man must acknowledge his sinfulness (or at least sinful tendencies), and thus approach all creeds with utmost caution and humility. Indeed, pride is abolished when we realize that God's perfection is the standard, and that we are very much in the same boat as our other sinful brothers. With this in mind, we work together to understand God's perfection and apply it to our lives.

Mike Durning's picture

Joseph wrote:
So, the answer is a resounding no, and may God help us if we need to argue about this.

I agree. It sounds absurd. I don't want to believe that my buddy's Covenant theology is rooted in sin. I surely don't want to fear that he is right and my Dispensational approach is rooted in me being in sin. I prefer to think my friend, or I, or both, are somehow mistaken but sincere, and that our Lord smiles upon our silly little discussions.

What then, should I do with I Tim. 6:3-5? I need...
1). An explanation as to why Paul's instruction is in some way limited to a particular set of false teachings (such as "Free all the slaves today!", based on verses 1 & 2).
2). A proof that Paul's instruction is in some way limited to a particular type of false teachings (as in "Free all the slaves today" being an implication of a failure to accept certain doctrines, so that only doctrines with sinful behavioral implications are included in Paul's teaching).
3). Some other escape that fits hermeneutically.

I would rather not appeal merely to reason, as in "Paul here must be talking only about the slavery teaching popular in Ephesus at that time, because the results of assuming it applies to all doctrinal error are just to absurd."

Failing such a valid escape, I would be forced to assume that my own stubborn fallen humanity makes me blind to the fact that all doctrinal deviation is a result of sin such as outlined in I Tim. 6:3-5.

BTW, I see the relevance of Virtue Epistemology to the discussion, but it doesn't help me escape the trap of I Tim. 6 that well.

Mike Durning's picture

Upon completing thorough exegesis of the passage (I Tim. 6:3-5), I am now prepared to say with some assurance that there is a "living" component to the false teaching in the passage. Verse 3's use of "godly" or "godliness" (depending on your English translation) is key. If I am correct, and I so far believe I am, then all doctrinal abberation would NOT be a sign or result of sin.

Look it over, Greek wonks.

It also may be significant that verse 3 gives 3 qualifiers rather than 1.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Mike, I'd be interested in seeing your definition of sin.... and how proclaiming error--intentionally or otherwise--could fail to be sin.
Sean... rejecting the gospel is really not the sin that condemns a person to God's wrath. It's our sinful condition. Adam's sin brings death to all because "all sinned." We are born in iniquity then add sin to sin by our choices. But I agree with you that all sins are not equal and Joseph's "broader implications," "logical implications," etc. are not valid for that reason.

Jesus said the Pharisees would receive "greater damnation" because of particular offenses. (Matthew 23:14)
He refered to justice and mercy as "weightier matters" (Matthew 23:23)
Psalm 19:12-13 distinguishes between secret faults, presumptuous sins and great transgressions. Some of these may be synonyms for each other but not all of them.
In the Mosaic system, instructions for different kinds of sacrifices for different offenses is also evidence that accidentally failing in some duty, though still sin, is not the same as, say, blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

Charlie's picture

I would be prepared to say (with R.C. Sproul and I believe many others) that holding incorrect doctrines is sinful. Sinful is probably a better word than "a sin" for many reasons. First, any falling short of God's will for us (and that is a complex notion) is sinful, although much of that is not in the form of discrete acts of sin. At least, on a Reformed understanding of sin; Wesleyan and Finneyan conceptions of sin would have to deal with the issue differently. Secondly, and something I think Joseph is getting at, is that there must be some kind of contextualization for this. The "sinfulness" of a conservative evangelical deacon holding to a doctrinally aberrant view of Christ is likely of a different order than a similar error made by a liberal Protestant Scandinavian teenager. There is a difference regarding what one can reasonably be expected to know. (Note: I am not denying the sinfulness of the latter case). On another level, it would be absurd to suggest that a 4-year-old is sinful for not articulating Chalcedonian Christianity. There is there a very real lack of capacity, a physical and intellectual finitude.

I also think the sinfulness of holding incorrect doctrine is different than the sinfulness of discrete acts due to doxastic involuntarity, the fact that our beliefs are not open to direct modification by an act of will. For example, Aaron Blumer could not simply decide to start believing paedobaptism. He could say he does; he could even baptize an infant in his church; but he couldn't actually be persuaded of paedobaptism without some intellectual conditions being met that are outside the reach of his direct control. So, in order to establish an "ought" to our believing, we would have to assert that people have a responsibility to be open to certain beliefs or to put themselves in certain environments or acquaint themselves with certain literature or to do some other such thing in order that they should come to correct beliefs.

This, I think, brings us closer to a better attitude. Insofar as our Christian brothers and sisters are demonstrating a serious effort to obtain correct belief, I find it hard to criticize them morally, generally speaking. There are a range of factors determining correct Christian belief, and not all of them are directly moral. A possible counter-example would be someone who refuses a belief for invalid reasons (from a Christian perspective), such as a pastor's son who will not seriously engage X belief because his daddy, his church, and all the godly people he knows say Y, and they can't be wrong; plus it would make his life miserable if he came to disagree with his father. (Please not that there is a distinction between valuing the influence of certain people and basing one's range of potential beliefs on their perceived congruity with one's background).

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture


he could even baptize an infant in his church
That'll be the day! Biggrin

Your post is helpful. There is something to "acts of sin" vs. more generally "sinful." I'm not sure I understand how ability relates to the question though. That is, I'm wrestling with whether it has anything to do with it. I can see that a person who has not had opportunity to learn has committed a smaller offense than one who has been well taught and rejects. Similarly, the child who says we believe in "three Gods" is not committing an act as grave as, say, an adult Unitarian who insists God is not triune.
But if Adam's sin is imputed to us all without our conscious choice, isn't the child or immature Christian etc. just expressing his sinful character when he sins? Perhaps it's just that we're talking about layers here. On one level, it makes no difference whether we have the ability to do otherwise: the sin is what it is objectively, regardless of the role of ability and choice. A sinner sinning is like a fish swimming. It can't help itself, but that really just reveals how profoundly in need of saving the sinner is--how completely sin is part of his nature.
But when there is ability and choice and we sin anyway, surely this is something "even worse" but in a very different way. It's a personal layer?

(Note to self: add to already long list of things you need to study more.)

Charlie's picture

There is a tremendous difference between physical and moral inability. This is what Jonathan Edwards pointed out in The Freedom of the Will, and I think it is perhaps the most crucial distinction for Calvinists and Calvinish people. The Calvinist "can't" is really just a hardened "won't." God does not call people to do anything that they could not do if they were so disposed. The problem is that they are not so disposed. So, no, I don't think that a small child's inability to comprehend or articulate mysterious truths is at all in the same category. That can't is really a can't. Surely, they are sinners in other ways and sinful and sinful in general, but no four year old is sinning by crude articulations of the Trinity.

I think a serious concept of doxastic involuntarity helps us chart a middle course between "error is just error" and "all error constitutes specific sins that I have to specifically rebuke you for." Joseph briefly mentioned virtue ethics, and I think there is a lot to be gained from that perspective. Morality isn't concerned with just a serious of isolated acts, but rather, the type of character we are developing.

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin