What is sin?

There is a word that appears in many of my articles, as in many conversations about Christianity and theology. But it can be easy to overlook. That word is ‘sin.’ But what is sin? And perhaps more importantly, what is sin not?

Let me clarify my question. The point of this article is not to answer the question, what is ‘a sin.’ But rather, what is sin. A sin (though I’m not answering that question) is a specific act or action that is contrary to one of God’s laws or any action that displeases God; such as coveting, lying, killing, idolatry, or committing adultery. Sin, though, is a broader concept that is even more important to grasp. Sin could be described as the driving force that causes us to commit a sin.

What is the difference?

Often, we see sinning as violating one of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, in the Bible, we have occurrences of sin which happened centuries before the Ten Commandments, or the rest of the Law for that matter were even given to us by God. Because of sin, God destroyed the earth (save Noah and his family, of course) in the great flood a thousand years before He gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

what is sin

Let’s look at the first mention of the word ‘sin.’ It isn’t the story of Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Would it interest you to know that the word ‘sin’ does not appear anywhere in that story? But this was the sin that would mark the fall of mankind as was explained by Paul in the book of Romans:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–“

Romans 5:12

The first time the word ‘sin’ appears in the Bible is when God was questioning Cain. You may know of the story from Genesis 4:1-16 in which Cain killed his brother, Abel.

sin

Both Cain and Abel had made offerings to God. The Bible tells us that God had regard for Abel and his offering, “but for Cain and his offering, [God] had no regard. So Cain was very angry and his face fell.” (Genesis 4:5, emphasis added)

So, to illustrate the problem to Cain (and to us), God asked him why he was angry. God questioned Jonah similarly in Jonah 4:9. Anyway, God went on to say that if you do well (as Abel obviously had by pleasing God with his offering), you will be accepted.

But what God said next was interesting. If I were writing the Bible, I would have said something like, if you do not do well, you will not be accepted. So get over it, Cain. Fortunately, I did not write the Bible. So we instead get something profound. God said, “if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7, emphasis added)

But Cain did not rule over the sin crouching at the door, because in the very next verse Cain murdered Abel. Isn’t that interesting? God didn’t wait for Cain to kill Abel to say, you have sinned. God warned Cain that sin was preventing him from doing well. He told Cain that sin would make things worse for him if he didn’t take control of it.

I couldn’t imagine ignoring God’s face-to-face warning like that, but we ignore His warnings in the Bible all the time.

What about the Ten Commandments? As a reminder, and for reference, they are:
1. Have no other gods before Me.
2. Have (and worship) no carved images.
3. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.
4. Remember and keep holy the Sabbath.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Don’t murder.
7. Don’t commit adultery.
8. Don’t steal.
9. Don’t bear false witness.
10. Don’t covet.

So the first commandment about having any gods other than God, that’s what we call idolatry. God wired us all to worship something, He commands us to be sure it is Him that we worship though.

The other bookend is commandment ten, don’t covet. Here’s what I find interesting; coveting is basically wanting something (that someone else has) so strongly that it essentially becomes more important to you than God.

I believe it was Frances Shaffer who said (please forgive me if I got that wrong) that you can’t break any of the other nine commandments without first breaking this one.

I had to think about that when I read it, but it made sense. If I want anything more than I want God, I might be willing to steal to get it, lie to get it, cheat on my spouse to have it, or even murder someone. It could be money, power, affection, acceptance, or I might just be trying to temporarily fill some kind of hole in my soul; but if I want it more than I want God, if I covet it, I could be in real trouble. Sin would be crouching at the door.

So the Ten Commandments tell us, don’t have any god other than God. And while you’re at it, don’t have anything in your life more important than God. If you do, your heart is oriented wrongly and you are in sin.

In Old-Testament times, the Jewish people had God’s Law. They thought it made them better, and it did have its advantages, but the religious leaders would err on the side of caution and extrapolate these biblical rules until they felt they had everything covered… to a fault.

So ‘keep holy the Sabbath’ was expanded into ‘you cannot carry your mat on the Sabbath,’ then to ‘thou shalt eat no egg laid by any chicken on the Sabbath,’ and so on.

Without realizing it, the religious leaders were illustrating the point of God’s Law: mankind really stands no chance to behave their way into heaven. If we just spent our days trying not to violate any of these laws, trying not to commit a sin, we would never run out of ways to fail at it. We needed a Savior. God needed to handle things Himself… enter Jesus.

what is sin

Enter Jesus

Imagine for a moment being Jewish, early on in what we now refer to as the first century. You would have been raised–as generations before you have–to learn and obey, the many laws (between 613 and 621, depending on how you counted) contained within the books of Moses.

Just when you felt like you were living a decent life, following all the religious leaders–the scribes and Pharisees–had to teach, along came a new Rabbi who informed you that you had been doing things wrong all along. He also said that doing what the religious leaders taught, or even aspiring to behave like these leaders, wasn’t good enough.

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

matthew 5:20

Jesus turned the ideas of ‘acceptable’ living on their heads. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus started by laying out behaviors that were pleasing and acceptable to God.

In what came to be referred to as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), Jesus gave us 9 character traits that would be blessed by God. Perhaps for numerical harmony with the Ten Commandments, He gave us a tenth and final beatitude in John 20:29.

Those traits are poorness in spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace-making, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, those who are reviled and persecuted for Jesus’ sake, and (in His tenth) those who believe in Jesus though they have not seen Him.

Space and attention spans won’t permit me to totally break down the Beatitudes here, but I have to point to one in particular; the ninth one. The last one Jesus gave in this, His very first sermon:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Matthew 5:11, emphasis added

On My account? When we read this today, it seems like instructions from Jesus and we should endeavor to follow them. Could you imagine having been the life-long Jew in the audience who may have had the Law committed to memory by a young age and here comes this Guy who’s about the same age and socio-economic standing telling you that you will be blessed (presumably by God) if you are hated and persecuted on this Guy’s account? Who was this Guy supposed to be? Who indeed.

But I digress. My point about the Beatitudes is that God’s people had been following all of these rules of what not to do and suddenly, here’s a list of character traits. The first time I read them, they seemed to me as different traits that would each bring blessings to a person.

So all who were listening (and now reading) who were peacemakers would be blessed. And all who hungered for righteousness would be blessed, and so on. And I pictured different people identifying with different traits and each perking up (like me) when they heard their trait called. But I now believed that I had it all wrong.

I believe Jesus was telling us that His followers should have all of them. This was a demonstration of what God meant by ‘doing well.’ After all, didn’t Jesus have all of these traits? Aren’t we to be like Jesus? And doesn’t it follow that if we are like Jesus and possess these traits and ‘do well’ that we would then be able to rule over the sin crouching at our doors? But, at the time, who was this Guy supposed to be? I kinda felt the same way about Jesus before I grew to know Him better.

Today, if you try asking someone, even a Christian, how they are doing at ‘not sinning,’ or how well they think they are doing at obeying the Ten Commandments, you will often hear, “well, I’ve never killed anyone” or “I’ve never cheated on my spouse.”

Well, in this same sermon, Jesus made this approach to ‘obedience’ a bit more challenging.

“You have heard it said…”

Jesus knew what was on everyone’s heart. He knows what’s on our hearts. Jesus expanded on some of the laws just in case anyone had fooled themselves into thinking they were obeying them all. (Matthew 5:21-48)

  • You have heard it said, ‘don’t commit murder,’ but I say that if you are angry with your brother, you are just as guilty.
  • You have heard it said, ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say that if you just think about it, you are just as guilty.
  • You have heard it said, ‘if you need to divorce your wife, go ahead,’ but I say that you can only divorce for sexual immorality.
  • You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say do not swear positively either. An honest ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is plenty.
  • You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say ‘turn the other cheek.’
  • You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say ‘love your enemies also.’

People just thought they were in good standing with these laws. Then Jesus arrived and explained how we had been using the wrong standard all along; our standard, not God’s.

There are two important things we need to realize about Jesus’ clarifications. First, obeying the laws of the Old Covenant is far more difficult than anyone realized. He was saying, just in case you thought you were righteous, you are still a long way off.

But the second thing we need to keep in mind is that it was actually these more-difficult things that Jesus came to save us from and forgive us of.

Jesus wanted us to know that just carrying around the checklist and doing all we could to follow it all like the Scribes and Pharisees were teaching, was not going to cut it. We still needed salvation. But the Savior was here.

What changed?

God gave us 1500 years to prove ourselves worthy of Him. Then, He even spelled out what it would take to be righteous (in the Law) and He gave us another 1500 years, and all we did was prove that it wasn’t possible.

The human heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). The heart is naturally full of evil and madness (Ecclesiastes 9:3). So God had to step in. He needed to take out our hearts and give us new ones, then fill that heart with a new Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). And that’s what happened when Jesus came. That’s what happens when Jesus comes into your life.

Instead of ‘fixing’ it so that we won’t sin anymore, God forgave our sin through Jesus‘ atoning work on the cross. Now our hearts are brand new. Now the Holy Spirit can enter in. Now, we avoid sin because we want to. Not because we feel we have to.

What is sin not?

We need a right idea of sin to understand the Gospel… to clearly grasp what it was that Jesus gave His life for.

Sin isn’t an overdue library book or stepping on a crack or walking under a ladder. Sin isn’t eating meat on a Friday or not going to church on Sunday.

Sin is an imperfection that would be destroyed in God’s presence because of His perfection; His holiness. Light and darkness cannot occupy the exact same space at the exact same time. That’s why we can’t be in heaven without His forgiveness. We can’t be in God’s presence with unforgiven sin (of any size) because, in God’s presence, unforgiven sin would get burned up, and us right along with it. That’s why Jesus had to die–because of the severity of sin.

The problem we all have is we think that we’re good people and that we’re only guilty of stepping on cracks and walking under ladders when really, we have idols like money, power, or sex, or we hate our next-door neighbor because of where he parks. We think that homosexuals, Mormons, and Muslims are going to hell and that it’s okay to hate them before we think that we will go to hell for not loving them. Then we say ” I’m a good person.” But by whose standard?


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Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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