Chapter 2: What is sin?

The purpose of this chapter is to present a correct and clear explanation of sin. Sin is such a familiar word. It is part of the vocabulary of most people and used in their conversations. Yet people seldom have a clear idea of what sin is, nor do they understand sin to be a serious threat to their lives. Therefore, we should be grateful to God for His Word, the Bible, which alone provides us with an accurate understanding of sin. God’s Word also eliminates the many confusing and wrong notions about sin that interfere with our attempts to gain victory over it.

1. Sin is a problem to solve

As cheerless and uncomfortable as the subject of sin may be, what the Bible teaches us about it is a source of real hope, comfort and joy. Life is not just the sum of all the cruelty and pain we see around us. This sometimes frustrating, disgusting and frightening existence is not a mindless, pointless joke. The good news of the Bible is that all the sadness exists for a reason. The reason is that sin entered into a perfect universe through the disobedience of the first man, Adam (Rom. 5:12). Adam was without sin when he was created. But Adam subsequently became a sinner, a human with a sin-corrupted nature. Since kind begets kind (Gen. 1:24-25), all of Adam’s descendants are sinners, too, revealing their corrupt nature by the sins they commit every day. Thus, the Bible teaches that sin and its effects are not part of the original design of the universe. A universe with sin is not the way it was supposed to be. Sin is not an annoyance to tolerate or a menace to accept. Our hope is not limited to minimizing sin’s influence and effects. Rather, sin is a problem to be solved, and its contamination is a stain to be cleansed.

From one point of view, we can say that success in dealing with sin is based upon the fact that sin is not man’s problem to solve. It is God’s problem. Sin is not God’s problem in the sense that sin is God’s fault or that God must control sin in His own life. God never thinks, says or does anything that is contrary to His own law. Rather, sin is God’s problem in the sense that after sin entered into God’s perfect creation, it was up to Him to help Adam and his descendants out of the mess in which they found themselves. God did not have to do that. However, God took man’s problem seriously, and decided to make man’s sin His problem to solve. Since no man could or would solve his own or anyone else’s sin problem (Rev. 5:4,5, Isaiah 59:16, 63:5), God had to step in or nothing would have been done. Therefore, God obligated Himself to help sinners. The Bible states that before the foundation of the world, before any man was around to participate, God designed, prepared and provided for His Gospel plan to solve man’s sin problem (II Tim. 1:9). Wonderfully, sin, our own personal sin, is a problem that God Himself faces, resolves and removes in Jesus Christ.

We can compare the importance of attempting to answer the question “What is sin?” to the value of a medical diagnosis. In order to have any hope of finding a remedy for a disease, we must be sure that we accurately identify the disease and understand both its nature and behavior. We can dispute or ignore any pathological evaluation of our condition we do not like. We can refuse the prescribed therapy, calling the evaluation and treatment unnecessary. But if we do, any sickness we have will remain. How much more serious is our sin problem! Sin is the deadliest disease of all, for it results in eternal death in Hell under the wrath of God. The spiritual pain and consequence of sin are far more horrible than any physical malady anyone has ever suffered. If we suppress the Bible’s penetrating diagnosis of our sin problem, we do so to our eternal peril. The Bible calls us to be sure we know the truth about our sin as well as the truth about the help that God alone has provided in the Savior, Jesus Christ, the only One who can remove the penalty and power of sin (Rom. 8:3-4).

Without a proper understanding of sin, people are led to a life of fear and license. Without a proper understanding of sin, the Christian life becomes a hollow fad that is just so much religious music, trite clichés and Jesus symbols.

On the other hand, with a correct understanding of sin and a proper appreciation of the problem that it is, life has meaning and purpose. The Bible’s idea of sin gets to the heart of why Jesus came to earth and of what destiny each person can expect to face. That is, what people think about sin will determine what they do about their sin problem and how successful their efforts will be.

2. Sin is disobedience

So far, we have discussed many things about sin. However, we have not yet presented a clear and precise definition of sin, which is a necessary prerequisite for understanding it. To that end, let us begin our understanding of sin with the observation that the Bible states sin is a label for what we do. In I John 3:4, we read, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” In simplest words, sin is disobedience of God’s law. We begin our understanding of sin with an objective description of performance. If what we do or do not do contradicts God’s law, we have sinned. A strict application of I John 3:4 leads us to state that the word “sin” is a label that identifies a person’s deeds which differ from the expressed statements in God’s law.

Obviously, any list of sins includes overt actions which can be measured against God’s law. But the thoughts of a person’s heart also can be sin (Prov. 24:9), as well as his speech which expresses his heart (Matt. 12:34). Thoughts can be sin in the sense that they are attitudes forbidden by God’s law. For example, they can include an attitude toward God such as unbelief. Or they can include an attitude toward self such as pride. Or they can include attitudes toward others such as anger or lust. Thoughts also can be sin in the sense that they are a wrong view of the Bible and what it teaches. That is, if what a person thinks about the message of the Bible is not in strict accord to what is true, those thoughts are sin. That means any doctrine which is not accurate or correct is sin.

Notice that there really is no distinction between transgressions of deed or doctrine. It is all sin. This is true because everything is compared to God’s one standard. This is also true because what a person thinks cannot be separated from what he does. On one hand, what a person thinks shapes his words and actions. What a person thinks about the Bible’s message of creation, the atonement, and the final judgment directly effects what he says and does. On the other hand, the words a person loves to say and actions that a person loves to do will influence him to modify his doctrine in order to justify his behavior. A crooked life spawns and nourishes crooked thoughts about what the Bible teaches.

We must mention that sin is independent of a person’s intentions. Sin is a word that identifies any behavior of a person that is different from the commands stated in God’s law, regardless of his ignorance or misunderstanding of that law, independent of his purpose (Lev. 5:17). Any thought, word or deed that does not perfectly match the commandments of God is sin. We also must point out that sin is independent of a person’s emotions. Sin is not a matter of feeling but of fact. When a person disobeys God, he may or may not have "guilty feelings," but he is guilty just the same. His guilt is established by measuring his behavior against God’s law.

This concrete and specific understanding of sin is unacceptable to unsaved people. It is a hateful reminder of their clear obligation to obey God, as well as a frightening reminder of their accountability to Him for their disobedience.

At this point, we must be careful. A performance-based understanding of sin must not lead us to think wrong ideas about sin. I John 3:4 does not imply that, if we can control our behavior such that we outwardly conform to God’s law or avoid any outward disobedience of it, we are free of sin. We cannot decide, based upon an examination of our outward performance alone, whether anything we do is a sin or not. In other words, behavior that is in agreement with God’s law includes, but is not limited to, an outward compliance with it. The reason is that, as we have alluded to and as we shall explain, our outward behavior cannot be separated from who we are as a person inside.

3. Sin is deliberate disobedience

To our understanding of sin as a label for performance we should add the observation that the Bible also teaches sin is a label for what we want to do. According to James 4:17, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Sin is a label that describes a person’s disobedient behavior in light of what he knows he ought to do. A person sins fully aware of what he does because that is what he wants to do. Therefore, James 4:17 adds the idea that sin is a deliberate refusal to obey God. That is, sin labels a person’s willful behavior, his intentional disobedience of God’s law (Rom. 1:21).

From this point of view, we understand sin to be a deliberate assertion of a person’s will in opposition to God’s will. God says, “Do this. Don’t do that.” People who sin respond outwardly or in their heart, “Phooey. I’ll do what I want instead.” Sin is what men do or do not do based upon a wicked and self-centered heart that says “Leave me alone and let me live my own life as I want. I am my own boss. I want to fulfill my own plans.” Sin labels what a person does, motivated by his rebellious desire to replace God’s will with his own objectives and plans. Sin can be compared to the actions of a little child who throws a temper-tantrum. Blind to the folly and results of his actions, a stubborn willful child demands his own way, even if his actions will clearly result in damage and harm to himself and others. Similarly, we can say that sin is a person’s juvenile, out-of-control pursuit of his own selfish desires.

Since a proper understanding of sin includes the recognition that a person knows what is right yet refuses to comply, perhaps we should ask, “Who knows what is right?” Many people know what is right from a limited exposure to God’s word. But everybody knows what is right from the law that is written on their hearts, from their consciences (Rom. 2:14-15). The point is that Adam was not ignorant of his responsibility, and no man since has been ignorant of God’s demands or of his own accountability before God for his disobedience. The sinful disobedience which all men demonstrate exhibits their deliberate, stubborn and rebellious desire to disobey God. They simply do not want to do what God says.

Some people object to this understanding of men’s intentions. According to their view, men want to obey and try to obey but are not quite able to measure up to the perfect demands of God’s law. They appeal to a verse such as Romans 3:28, which states, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Their idea is that men try in their sinful way to do what God says, but come up short. We can illustrate their idea with the picture of a man who has shot an arrow at a target and missed the mark.

But this is a wrong way to think of both Romans 3:23 and sin. People do indeed lack the glory of God, as this verse states. But if we use the same illustration, then a more correct picture would be of a man who deliberately turns around and faces the opposite way from the target. In fact, the man in his perverseness breaks the bow and arrow, having no desire to hit the target. That is the message of Romans 3:10-18. Romans 3:23 is not a comment on people’s ineffective efforts to achieve the standard of God’s glorious righteousness. Sin is a deliberate act of disobedience. Outside of Christ, people do not even want to obey God. It takes the grace of God to turn anyone around so that he faces God’s righteous law. It takes the grace of God to cause anyone to seek the glory of God through humble submission to the Gospel.

How devious people are in their attempts to achieve their own desires in opposition to the will of God! For example, people often base their ethics upon the situation at the moment. They so easily negotiate and compromise any standards that guide their behavior because they refuse to recognize the absolute requirements of God’s law. This is illustrated by a man who lies on his tax reports to his government, with whose policies and practices he does not agree. This also is illustrated by a woman who destroys her unborn baby through an abortion in order to protect her own life. People are motivated by a desire to be free to do what they want, as well as by an ambition to turn any situation to their own advantage.

In another example, people often measure their own behavior by comparing it with the behavior of somebody else and conclude that when they sometimes do sin it is not really so bad. This is illustrated by people who are horrified at the murders reported on the front page of their newspaper and so feel their own anger and resentments are far less serious, even inconsequential. But that comparison is a pointless exercise. As we have learned, when people sin they act in a deliberate, willful and hateful rebellion against God’s law. God’s law is the perfect and uncompromising standard to which men must compare their thoughts, words and deeds. And as we learned, when people sin they demonstrate that they simply do not want to do what God requires of them. Sin is a conflict of wills, theirs against God’s.

4. Sin and the law

In support of the idea that sin is deliberate disobedience to God’s will, we can briefly look at the phrases “break the commandments” and “break the law” which are found in the Bible (Matt. 5:19, Rom. 2:23) and used in common conversation today. No one really can break a law, especially God’s law, in the way he might break a porcelain vase or a wooden stick. The phrase, “break the law,” does not mean that we are able to damage the law. We cannot reduce its strength or authority over us. Instead, we can understand these words in the following way. After God created Adam, He made a contract with him. One part of the contract can be summarized as, “Obey me and live.” Eventually, Adam disobeyed God. We could say that Adam “broke the terms” of the contract that he was expected to fulfill in order to maintain a right relationship with God and continue to experience His blessings. Today unsaved people are under the same obligation to obey that Adam was. However, unlike Adam originally was, they are spiritually dead. And yet, it is a fact that they still have an obligation to do what God commands. It also is a fact that they disobey. Therefore, they are liable as people who have “broken the law.”

Incidentally, we should mention that even though some people may be consciously unaware of the written law of God, they are not free from the obligation to obey it. The contract that God made with Adam, that God many years later expressed in propositional statements in His Word, applies to all men. Men’s accountability before God is independent of the quantity of God’s law that is revealed to them. Therefore, it is not correct to say that a certain remote tribe of people who never heard the Word of God are held to a different standard than those who have read the Bible. Members of that tribe are held to the same standard as are all men.

In addition to that, it might seem that since sin is disobedience of God’s law, sin exists because the law exists, and if the law did not exist then neither would sin (Rom. 4:15). Or as I Corinthians 15:56 puts it, “the strength of sin is the law.” It is true that sin exists because the law exists (Rom. 7:8). But that does not imply that the law is the cause of men’s sin (Rom. 7:7). Nor does it imply that the solution to sin is to get rid of the law. Both of those ideas are the common thinking of unsaved people. But they are wrong.

We must disconnect the law and sin from any cause-and-effect relationship. The law is an independent statement of God’s perfect standard of behavior (Psalm 19:7), to which the behavior of all people is compared. It is like a perfectly straight metal rod which reveals the crookedness of any stick to which it is compared. Whether a stick is crooked or straight is a fact of its shape, independent of any other object. A stick does not become crooked when it is held next to a straight rod. Similarly, people are the kind of creatures who behave in a certain way and the law simply reveals what they do, just as a light beam cast into a dark room reveals what already exists there (Rom. 5:20, Gal. 3:19, Eph.5:13). The idea is that the law exposes sin. It does not cause sin.

Besides, removing the law makes no sense. The law would cease to exist only if God would cease to exist. The law has no existence or meaning independent of God Himself. The reason is far deeper than the fact that God is the author of the law. The standard of behavior that is described in the law is not a set of self-existent, autonomous rules with an authority above God, to which He also must conform. The law is really a description of God Himself, how He thinks, what He says, and what He does. God is who He is. He has a character that causes Him to think, say and do things in a certain way, and the law reveals what that is. In fact, the law is a synonym for God, inasmuch as He calls Himself “the Word” (John 1:1, Rev. 19:13) and He calls His Word “the law” (Isaiah 1:10, Mal. 4:2). The issue is that God expects from people, whom He has created in His own image, the same standard of behavior that He expects from Himself. That is what He means in a verse such as I Peter 1:6, “be ye holy even as I am holy.” So it makes no sense to suggest that we get rid of the law, because desiring to get rid of the law is the same as wanting to get rid of God, which is an impossible and illogical demand.

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