What Is Sin?
In the little Children’s Catechism that we use at our church the question is answered this way:
“Sin is any lack of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.”
‘Conformity’ is defined this way: “Not being or doing what God requires.”
‘Transgression’ is defined this way: “Doing what God forbids”.
That’s a pretty good start.
Sin is acting or behaving in a way that does not conform with God’s character or commands. It is about crossing lines that have been laid down for us by God. Sin is thus an act of rebellion and distrust. It is us saying to God: “You don’t get to make the rules! I am capable of deciding right and wrong for myself!”
But why should God get to define what I do and how I live?
That’s a fair question.
The word ‘sin’ presupposes a particular worldview. That worldview is expressed succinctly in the opening verse of the Bible:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1 ESV)
According to the Bible, this is God’s world. He made it and is Sovereign over it. Therefore, he gets to make the rules. Human beings are the pinnacle of his creation, but they are nevertheless part of it. Humans are created beings and are therefore subject to the will and word of the Creator. That was made very clear to the first person we encounter in the Bible. God said to Adam:
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17 ESV)
Thus to be a human being is to operate within a system of permission and prohibition. There is far more permission than prohibition, as the above verses clearly indicated, but prohibitions do exist. There are lines that are not to be crossed and there are activities that are forbidden and there are consequences for rebelling against those basic parameters.
The Bible clearly states that we are required to obey God’s law, but it also states that we ought to desire to keep God’s law. God is love (1 John 4:16) and the law is the expression of God’s character, therefore the law shows us how to love.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10 ESV)
God’s way is the way of love – and God’s way is the way of wisdom.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7 ESV)
We ought not to be surprised that the Author of the Universe would provide instructions for wise, loving and harmonious conduct within in. The Bible is clear: obeying God leads to love, wisdom and flourishing, but:
“the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV)
What is the effect of sin?
As is indicated in the passaged cited immediately above, the Bible teaches a fundamental connection between sin and death. Stated simply: sin leads to death, although ‘death’ is conceived of in the Bible in a variety of ways.
Most immediately and obviously, sin leads to death in a physical way. In the Garden of Eden story, which the Bible seems to present as both historical and paradigmatic, the sin of Adam and Eve leads to their expulsion from the Garden and therefore their loss of access to the Tree of Life, which in turn causes them to begin to die in a physical way.
Sin also leads to death in terms of the decline of human society. When we reject the good commands of God we enter into the realm of violence, greed, theft, hatred, strife, murder and war which result in great suffering and loss for human beings.
Sin also leads to the loss of our original vocation and calling. The man and the woman were both made ‘in the image and likeness of God’ – Genesis 1:26-27. This implies that their job was to serve as God’s Royal Representatives within creation. In effect, they were to be under God and over everything else. They were to receive the blessings of heaven and distribute them throughout the entire created order. However, by rebelling against God, they lost their ability to receive blessings from God. They thus fell from their exalted position. The Bible presents the temptation narrative in Genesis 3 as a complete inversion of the created order. The man is led by a created thing (the serpent) to rebel against God. God – man – creation is thus turned upside down as serpent leads man against God. In reaching up, we fell down and have now lost our unique access to God and our representative power over his creation – the effects of which can be seen all around us:
“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22–23 ESV)
Sin also and most significantly leads to death in a spiritual sense. In the Garden of Eden story the man and the woman were expelled from the presence of the Lord. When they sinned, they immediately hid from God. Their sin created an awareness in them that they could no longer go into the presence of God clothed as they were in the garments of rebellion and sedition. The story is told this way:
“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:8 ESV)
According to the Bible, the more we sin, the more we hide from God. That isn’t to say that the distance between us and God is merely psychological – the Bible is clear that God has an active antagonism toward sin. He is of purer eyes than to look upon evil, according to Habakkuk 1:13. His holiness actually reaches out to confront and counteract sin. In Zechariah 5 the prophet sees a vision of a flying scroll that goes out searching throughout all the earth:
“This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land. For everyone who steals shall be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cleaned out according to what is on the other side. I will send it out, declares the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter the house of the thief, and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. And it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.” (Zechariah 5:3–4 ESV)
Sin invites the active antagonism of God.
And therefore sinners instinctively know to hide from God. Sinners instinctively understand that unless their sin can somehow be covered or removed, it would be unwise for them to seek the Lord. That is why the unexpected appearance of God in the Bible is often a cause for alarm. When Isaiah the prophet saw the Lord he said:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5 ESV)
It would be hard to overstate the significance and impact of human sin – cosmically, corporately and personally. The effect of sin is not just an issue for the planet or for the species – it affects us profoundly as human beings. As the Psalmist says:
“If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18 KJV)
Sin cuts us off from the presence and the help of the Lord.
Sin diminishes us.
Sin deceives us.
Sin robs us of our original design and calling.
That’s what the Bible means when it says that:
“the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV)
What is the solution?
Thankfully the Bible is as clear with respect to the solution as it is with respect to the problem:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 ESV)
Jesus Christ is the solution given by God to address the problem of human sin. In fact that is precisely how he is introduced in the Gospel of John. John the Baptist saw Jesus and said:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV)
In one of his pastoral letters John said:
“You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” (1 John 3:5 ESV)
Because of who he was – the perfect, sinless Son of God in human flesh – Jesus could do something that no one else was able to do. He could die for the sins of the world. Were he ever to have sinned himself, then his death would have been merely the death that he owed to God, but because he never sinned, because he loved all perfectly and delighted in every word of God, his death could function as an infinitely meritorious sacrifice freely applied to all who take hold of it in faith.
This is what the Bible means by “propitiation” or as in some versions “an atoning sacrifice”. The life and death of Jesus provides a way for us to have a just peace with God. It has the power to remove forever the offense of human sin:
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 ESV)
The cross of Jesus Christ is an expression of God’s love and his holiness. It is powerful and it is effective for all who take hold of it in faith. As John said:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 ESV)
The Bible says that God sent Jesus into the world to live a life of perfect love and obedience. Because he was truly human, his life fulfilled the original plan and design of God. It was always his intention to release the blessings of heaven into the earth through the agency of a perfectly obedient human being. And now he can. That is why the Apostle Paul said:
“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” (2 Corinthians 1:20 ESV)
Everything God said that he would give now can be given because of the obedience of Christ. That was the effect of his perfectly loving and obedient life.
In addition, because he was sinless and pure, his death can be the payment that humanity owes for its horrible sin and rebellion.
Thus, through Jesus, our probation is accomplished, our vocation is restored and our legal debt is obliterated – thanks be to God!
By his resurrection from the dead, God indicated his acceptance of this payment. Much as one must wait those agonizing three seconds before the debit machine states: “Payment received. Remove card” so we waited, as a people, for three days to learn that our debt had been paid through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But on the third day he rose again achieving forever the full justification of those who put their faith in him.
That is the Gospel!
Therefore the Apostle Paul says:
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9 ESV)
To be saved means to be forgiven, accepted and prepared to serve as a citizen of the coming Kingdom. When Jesus returns to the earth all causes of sin and all persisting sinners will be removed from the earth prior to the renewal of all things and the consummation of his eternal reign over the cosmos:
“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:40–43 ESV)
Do you have ears to hear?
How does this message fall on you?
Do you bristle at the idea that you are not the highest power and authority in the universe?
Does it bother you to know that God does not and will not merely wink at your sins and shortcomings?
Or does it humble you to know that God is holy and you are not?
Does it astound you to think that a holy God would love you enough to take on flesh and do for you what you could never do for yourself and to pay for what you have done through his body on the cross?
Does it break you to learn that the death of Jesus was not merely due to the sin of some angry first century folks living in Jerusalem, but actually – and ultimately – because of your sin and rebellion against God?
Do you have ears to hear?
I pray that you do.
I pray that you would see and receive the free gift of salvation that God has made available for you through the life and death of Jesus Christ.
And may God alone be glorified!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.