What is Sin, Anyway?

Therefore to him that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17, NASB)

We’ve all heard it, right? “You’re a sinner! Repent and be saved!” Now, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with that message, but I don’t think it really strikes the right chord in this modern day. I also don’t think it paints the whole picture.

The question all boils to what sin really is. Why should you repent? Why do you need to be saved?

I thought that this question would have been a generally well understood one, but I learned recently that I was wrong. My sister recently said of our father, “Dad’s never sinned, has he? When did he ever sin?” Now, note that she is technically old enough to be a grandmother (and is), and is old enough to be my mother if she’d had me young. My Dad and I were both pretty stunned hearing her say that.

She said that of our dad because he is one of the truest Christians I’ve ever known. He certainly “bears the fruit” and I don’t think there is anyone who knows him that could sincerely say otherwise. He is an amazing man and I’m not saying that only because he’s my dad.

Nevertheless, he’s not perfect. No one is, after all.

So then, we are back to the original question. What is sin?

According to Webster:

Definition of SIN
a : an offense against religious or moral law
b : an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible <it’s a sin to waste food>
c : an often serious shortcoming : fault
a : transgression of the law of God
b : a vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God

Webster actually gets it pretty spot on!

In a nutshell, there are different types of sin. It is sin to go directly against a God-given command. It is sin to disobey civil law – this includes traffic laws (but excludes where civil law would be in contradiction to God’s law). It is sin to be jealous of what someone else has and want it for yourself. It is sin to tell be dishonest or deceptive (even to a small degree and even without malice). It is sin to lust after someone other than your spouse. There are many other examples, just as there are many other sins! Generally, we all recognize sins that are illegal and/or immoral.

But, OK. Let’s say that someone is morally upstanding and law-abiding. They just don’t do any of these things, and they don’t do any of the things that even could be considered bad or wrong, even if there wasn’t clear consensus on whether or not they were bad or wrong. They just seemingly did everything right. How could they be sinners?

This is where it takes a sudden turn. Lots of people, I think, understand sin as primarily meaning all these things to not do. Don’t do this bad thing, don’t do that bad thing, do this good thing, love your neighbor… and voila – not sinful! Right?

Here are a few sins that often go unnoticed by the very people who talk about all the things they don’t do. In fact, a couple of these things are even what Jesus was accusing the Pharisees of.

  • Being self-righteous is sin.
  • Complaining is sin.
  • Not loving God is sin.
  • Not believing God is sin.
  • Rejecting God is sin.
  • Pride is sin.

Well now, that just changed the whole game!

The problem isn’t that we are just terribly immoral. Many of us are, by all means! I’m certainly not declaring innocence for anyone, most of all not for myself! But what this means is that we can not do all these different things and we can also do morally upright things and we can still be sinful. One of the things that really shows our sin is when we don’t do all these bad things, and then we pat ourselves on the back and think about how much better we are for not doing them. For what reason do we do that?

In fact, this is one of the very things that Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing! If they were merely not doing bad things, that wouldn’t have made them good, but it would’ve been better than doing things considered bad, wrong, perverse, or otherwise immoral. One of their problems was that they avoided all these immoral things and then they patted themselves on the back for it. They considered themselves superior to others. They looked down on others, particularly on people who were publicly declared sinners. In short – they were self-righteous hypocrites. (Yes, I am aware that unfortunately many professing “Christians” of this day also fit that bill nicely!)

But that’s not the only thing that they did wrong, and that many people get wrong in this day. There are many people out there today who don’t act very different from the Pharisees and Sadducees. Sometimes, sadly, I’m one of them! It’s difficult at times to look at all the good things you do and the bad things you don’t and then look at someone else who does them, and think “I’m glad I’m not like that person!” I think this is especially true – in America – of addicts. We, as a society, have a tendency to look down on addicts of any type. I’ve been shamefully guilty of this myself!

Now, I am sure there are some people who aren’t like that. Maybe they’ve been around addicted people or people with other problems and they recognize and understand their plight better. Maybe they have a better grasp on humanity as a whole and truly treat everyone as equals. Then would they be sinning?

We could keep going like this, but here’s the bottom line. Sin isn’t just about immoral behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes.

Sin, at its core, is about independence from God. We are all born into sin because we are all separated from God by sin. People often tend to view sin as immorality, and clearly, that is one definite expression of it! But at the real heart of the matter remains independence, leading to rejection of His authority and hence, separation.

But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:17, HCSB)

Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death”. God tells Adam and Eve they will die if they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan lured them by saying that they would be like God. At face value, it looks like God isn’t telling the truth because Adam lived for some 900 years, so clearly he didn’t die in the garden that day! Yet, he did. Firstly, Adam suffered spiritual death. That is, he was separated from God on that day. Death is a form of separation. We could say “death is separation from life”, right? Obviously most people wouldn’t say that, because it states the obvious. However, if death is separation from life, and if God is the source of all life, then spiritual death means separation from the source of our spiritual life – God.

Secondly, as Dr. Jerry Benjamin has stated many times, God doesn’t specify whose death that has to be. He is freely able to provide a substitute. For Adam and Eve, note that once they were aware of their nudity, the first death recorded in Scripture was that of the animal God gave them to cover them. God substituted the death of the animal for the immediate deaths of Adam and Eve.

Now when we talk about being born into sin, in part it means that when we are born into the world, we are both physically and spiritually separated from God. When Adam and Eve took those first bites of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were committing what we often think of as sin by disobeying God’s direct command. They were guilty also of not trusting and believing God. They were guilty of taking Satan’s word over God’s.

Most of all, they were guilty of not submitting to God’s will, but acting independently by doing what they wanted to do. Yes, God gave them the free will to do what they chose, but that doesn’t make it any less sinful to separate from God by going off and doing what they were persuaded to do rather than as God commanded and willed. That is ultimately what it means to be born with a sin nature. We act independently and we try to do things without God. We are born with an undeniable spirit of independence. We want to do what we want, when we want, how we want, where we want. We want to live our lives apart from God. Even if we are willing to act morally, we aren’t willing to give up control over our lives to Him.

Ultimately, no matter how morally upstanding, no matter how humble we are in our incredible moral high ground, no matter all the immoral things we don’t do or how much better we might be than the next guy… It is still sin when we have our own independent, free wills but we don’t use them to submit to the will of God. I am extremely guilty of this, myself.

After Adam and Eve sinned, they also became imperfect and therefore, impure. We have to remember that God is perfect, pure and holy. Sin separates us from God, but it also separates us from purity and perfection. God doesn’t merely choose not to do wrong, He can’t. Once we consider that sin means separation from God and spiritual and eventual physical death, it is clear that this is contrary to God’s character. He’s completely pure and therefore He can’t sin. It’s actually a logical contradiction to claim otherwise! If He is the source of all life, it’s impossible for Him to die. He can’t separate from Himself and suddenly not be God. He can’t be the source of all good and then not be good. God is quite literally “too good for sin.” But, once the first man and woman used their free wills to act independently of the will and command of God, they were no longer pure and flawless themselves. When we consider that God is the eternal source not just of life but also of purity, perfection and holiness, we realize that He doesn’t just set a high standard – He is the standard, and we do not meet up.

Since it is impossible for us to meet His standard, that is also sin. In this case it’s not a statement of deliberate wrongdoing, it’s describing a flaw. We are flawed beings, desiring independence. With the act of separation from God and all His purity, holiness, and perfection, when we decided to act independently of God, we became tainted with sin. Think of it as a disease of the spirit, and we cannot cure ourselves of it.

The final point we will look at is this: the number one commandment of the ten commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) When Jesus sums up all of the commandments and laws of the Old Testament, He says this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-18, NIV)

Clearly, if we are not loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind; if He is not first and foremost above all else in our lives, if we have given anything or anyone a higher priority, and most of all if we are acting as our own god – we are sinning. We are born into sin, which means we are born into imperfection and separation from God. We are born with a sin nature, a disease we cannot cleanse ourselves of. We can’t help it, literally, which is why we need Jesus.

5 thoughts on “What is Sin, Anyway?

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