Book Review – GA Anderson, Sin: A History

book anderson sinI read this book a couple years ago and it has left a lasting impression on me. Written I believe, by a Roman Catholic, he quotes a fair amount of scripture explaining the shift in underlying metaphors used to describe sin. The book ties this into the overall narrative of scripture which again appeals to me.

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 202
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Topic: Biblical, Sin
  • Audience: Lay ministers, Protestants

I found the book easy to read and I loved the scriptural foundation for all of his arguments. At times he does refer to the underlying Hebrew and Greek but what he says does not depend on his readers knowing these languages.

The implications of some of his points are quite interesting from a historical point of view. He explains how various early church beliefs and behaviours came about.

Contents – Overview

  • part one: – introducing the problem
    • Chapter 1 – what is a sin?
    • Chapter 2 – a burden to be borne
    • Chapter 3 – a debt to be repaid
  • part two: – making payment on one’s debt
    • Chapter 4 – redemption and the satisfaction of debts
    • Chapter 5 – ancient creditors, bound laborers, and the sanctity of the land
    • Chapter 6 – lengthening the term of debt
    • Chapter 7 – loans and the rabbinic sages
    • Chapter 8 – early christian thinking on the atonement
  • part three: balancing debts with virtue
    • Chapter 9 – redeem your sins with alms
    • Chapter 10 – salvation by works?
    • Chapter 11 – a treasury in heaven
    • Chapter 12 – why god became man


Anderson traces the origin of sin as a debt back to the Old Testament. Most of the book is devoted to his account for how the metaphor of sin as a debt replaced that of sin as a burden and how that metaphor slowly worked its way into early Jewish and Christian thought.

One important theme of the book is that one cannot fully appreciate how the early church thought about Christ’s atoning act apart from a careful study of the (originally) Jewish metaphor involving sin that stands behind it.

Anderson also shows how almsgiving emerged as an important spiritual practice among Jews and Christians in the early post-Old Testament period. He shows how almsgiving and the debt metaphor emerged simultaneously and developed into an ongoing back-and-forth relationship.


The book is helpful for readers of scripture in identifying the underlying metaphor used in passages describing sin and atonement.

It also considers corporate dimensions of sin and forgiveness. Highlighting key passages of scripture (e.g. Isa 40.1-5). I’ve since found these passages were seen this way by the early church.

If there are people interested in learning more about these I would recommend the book to them.

The book also gives scriptural defenses for some Roman Catholic practice regarding payment of debts by almsgiving. However I would suggest you read James Akins, Salvation Controversy for a better understanding of why Catholics do that.

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