What Is Sin?

What Is Sin?

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"Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4).

We have learned that our first step to becoming one of God's called, chosen and faithful servants is to recognize that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8). But how does the Bible define sin? What is it?

The Bible clearly tells us what sin is in several scriptures, each enhancing our understanding. But, before we look at these passages, we should first learn what the word sin means in the Bible languages.

Two broad concepts

The Hebrew and Greek words translated "sin" throughout the Bible revolve around two major concepts. The first is that of transgression. To transgress means "to step across" or "to go beyond a set boundary or limit." This concept can be compared with an athletic playing field with lines delineating the boundaries within which the game is to be played. When a player crosses over boundaries, he has committed a "transgression"; he has gone out of bounds. Limits are set that define the playing area, and the players are to keep inside the limits.

Most of the other words translated "sin" in the Bible involve a second concept, "to miss the mark." Again, to use a sports analogy, if a player aims for the goal and misses, how many points does he get? None. He missed the goal; he missed the mark at which he was aiming.

Paul uses the analogy of slavery to illustrate the degree of human subjugation to the pulls of the flesh, as they are influenced and manipulated by Satan.

This view of sin includes the concept of our intending to go in one direction but straying off course to the side and not continuing in the direction we planned, with the result that we don't make it to the goal we intended. We miss.

This concept also encompasses the idea of failing to measure up to a standard. For example, most academic courses and tests are graded according to a minimum standard. If we don't achieve that standard, we fail the test or course. A minimum level of performance is expected, and anything less is failure. By not meeting the standard, we "miss the mark"; we don't pass. We can miss the mark by missing our aimed-for goal, by falling short of the goal or by aiming in the wrong direction. In all of these situations we fail to reach the target set for us.

Both of these concepts, transgressing and missing the mark, imply a basic requirement. If we transgress, which means to cross over to the wrong side of a set boundary or limit, then there must be a boundary or limit to cross over. If we miss the mark, there must be a target or standard to aim for. Sin, then, is to transgress the boundaries God has set for us—or to miss His set target.

This is where the biblical definitions of sin become especially important. The Scriptures reveal the righteous boundaries and standards God sets for us. They specify the playing field on which we are to live. They lay out the goal—the righteous character—we are to aim for, along with the standard God expects us to meet.

In other words, the biblical definitions of sin show us the standards God has given us as to what is acceptable to Him and what isn't acceptable. They show us what measures up and what falls short of those standards. They reveal the fundamental principles God has given us to live by.

The definitions of sin in the Bible are not simply arbitrary dos and don'ts. Instead, they show us the way God lives. They reveal the spiritual principles by which He lives—the same standards of conduct He expects us to live by.

Transgressing the law of God

What, then, are the boundaries and standards God has set for us that define sin? The most basic definition of sin is in 1 John 3:4: "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (King James Version). Here God defines a boundary for mankind. He says that sin is transgressing His holy, spiritual law (Romans 7:12-14). Breaking that law—crossing that divine boundary, that limit God set for us—is sin.

Other translations help us gain another important perspective regarding this verse. Here's how the New King James Version translates it: "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness."

The word translated "lawlessness" is the Greek word anomia, meaning "without law" or "against law." The concept conveyed here is that sin is living like there is no moral law or the active violation of God's laws and basic moral principles.

God gave humanity His laws to show us His way of love. His laws define how to demonstrate love toward God and our fellow human beings (Deuteronomy 30:15-16; Matthew 22:35-40; 1 John 5:3). Sin is violation of God's law of love. God showed us a way to live in peace and harmony with Him and with mankind, and He defined this way of life by His law. When we sin, we violate—we transgress—that boundary by breaking His law.

Broader definition of sin

We find a broader definition of sin in 1 John 5:17: "All unrighteousness is sin" Other Bible versions help us more fully understand the meaning: "Every wrong action is sin" (Twentieth Century New Testament). "Every act of wrong-doing is sin" (Phillips Modern English). "Any kind of wrongdoing is sin" (Weymouth New Testament in Modern Speech). "All iniquity is sin" (Moffatt translation).

The word translated "unrighteousness," "wrong action," "wrong-doing" and "iniquity" in these versions is the Greek adikia. The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words defines it as "action that causes visible harm to other persons in violation of the divine standard" (Lawrence Richards, 1985, "Sin").

These meanings go beyond just physical actions and cross over into attitudes and motives for our actions—what goes on in our minds. They involve our thoughts.Other meanings of the word and its verb form are "evildoers," "dishonest," "unjust," "wickedness," "to be unfair," "to harm," "to mistreat," "to hurt" and "to wrong [someone]" (ibid.).

Jesus clarifies this in Matthew 5:21-22: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' ["empty-head"] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' [in the sense of cursing another as worthless or condemned] shall be in danger of hell fire."

Here Jesus draws attention to the law's underlying principle: If we pass judgment on other people, viewing them as worthless and undeserving of life or existence, this kind of angry, spiteful attitude puts us in danger of eternal death, not just physical stoning. Christ showed that sin includes not only our physical actions, but our thoughts and attitudes.

We should realize that sin starts in the mind. When we allow evil thoughts to enter our mind and stay there, eventually they can spring into action, leading us to sin. We are what we think (Proverbs 23:7).

We should not violate our conscience

God's goal is to build spiritually mature, godly character in us over the course of this life, making us ever more like Him (Matthew 5:48). We have our part in building this character by remaining faithful to what is right in spite of pulls to the contrary. We have to resist the temptation to do things we know we shouldn't. We must live by faith that God will give us the strength to endure whatever trials we face in this life.

But when we compromise, we tear down the character God is helping us build. We give in. And every time we give in we find it that much harder to resist giving in the next time we face temptation. Being faithful is a necessary part of our character development.

Compromise is especially dangerous because of the insidious way it spreads. If we get away with something once, we find it easier to try it again next time. Compromise grows like a cancer. It comes on slowly, then spreads. Before we know it, we can find ourselves in grave spiritual danger, in a fight for our spiritual lives.

This kind of angry, spiteful attitude puts us in danger of eternal death. Christ showed that sin includes not only our physical actions, but our thoughts and attitudes.

Compromise is not only a matter of violating clearly spelled out scriptural standards. We also compromise when we do something we think we shouldn't—even if that something is not itself actually a sin. What makes it wrong, a sin, in this case is attitude, since God requires that we have a mind-set of careful obedience and a desire to please Him.

It's even wrong to do if we merely think it might be wrong. Whatever we do, we must be confident that it's acceptable—or it's not acceptable. That is why God tells us that "whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). If our actions are contrary to what we believe to be right, we are sinning. We must be careful not to violate our conscience (1 Peter 3:15-16).

We need to be sure that what we do is done in faith and confidence, that it is right and acceptable to God—or we should not do it. Our motives need to be right and our conscience clear in everything we do. Therefore it is vital that we properly educate our conscience so it is in accordance with God's Word, the Bible. Our natural minds are not adept at discerning right from wrong (Jeremiah 10:23). Therefore we must first learn God's ways that define right and wrong (Hebrews 5:14).

God wants us to live within the boundaries and standards He has set for us and to change our values, attitudes, thoughts and actions so they are in line with His standards. The process of conversion may be simply defined as allowing God to work in us to replace our standards, values and thoughts with God's standards, values and thoughts.

Sin can even be what we don't do

The Scriptures tell us that we can sin by the things we do. But we can also sin by the things we don't do.

James 4:17 explains: "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin." This verse tells us that some transgressions involve sins of omission. James tells us that if we know to do good, and we recognize that we ought to be doing certain things but neglect to do them, that failure is sin. We miss the mark. We fall short of what we know we should be doing.

The four Gospels are filled with examples of this kind of sin. Jesus often clashed with people who were diligent about strict literal obedience to God's laws but never realized God expects more of us than our simply meeting minimum standards of behavior.

In Christ's day the Pharisees had compiled detailed lists of what they considered to be lawful behavior on the Sabbath. They were diligent about tithing—paying a tenth of one's increase to God—down to the last seed or grain of spice. They spent hours studying the law, fasting and praying. Yet Christ called them "blind guides," "hypocrites" and a "brood of vipers." Why?

These people simply didn't comprehend the intent of God's law. They put great effort into not committing sins. But they concentrated so much on this struggle that they failed miserably at applying many of the larger, even more important, principles of the law (Matthew 23:23; Hebrews 5:12).

Consider the conflicts they had with Jesus. Their biggest disagreements often were over the Sabbath. They were infuriated that Christ healed on the Sabbath. According to their teaching, one could provide medical help or treatment on the Sabbath only if the situation was immediately life-threatening. Thus when Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath—healing people who had been crippled or sick for years—instead of rejoicing for those who were healed, they were enraged at Jesus.

The Pharisees were blind to the good Jesus was doing—showing the love, compassion and mercy that is the very foundation of God's laws. He eased the misery of people who had suffered for years. That Jesus performed these acts of mercy on the Sabbath is proof that carrying out such acts is not a breaking of the Sabbath.

It was because of the Pharisees' willful spiritual blindness to the real purpose of the law—and their hostility, also violating the principle of the law—that Christ called them hypocrites and snakes.

What we are must change

Sometimes we can make the same mistake the Pharisees made. We may concentrate so much on a specific aspect of God's law that we lose sight of its purpose—concern for, and showing love to, others.

It is easy to think that merely avoiding breaking the letter of God's law is all that is required of us. But what did Jesus say? "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Luke 17:10).

We please God only if we exceed the bare-minimum letter of His law. Only a few days before His execution, Jesus elaborated on this principle:

"When the Son of Man comes in His glory . . . all the nations will be gathered before Him . . . Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'

"Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'

"Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.' . . . And these [the ones who did none of these things] will go away to everlasting punishment, but the righteous [those who did these things] into eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-43; Matthew 25:46).

Jesus illustrated this point with other examples. His parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) provides a prime example of a sin of omission. The rich man took no notice of a poor beggar, a man who had absolutely no significance in the wealthy man's busy life but who was greatly valued by God.

Another wealthy man filled his barns with impressive provisions while neglecting to extend a helping hand to the needy (Luke 12:16-21). This man stored up treasures for himself, filling his storehouses to overflowing with far more than he could possibly use while showing no regard for others—another sin of omission.

Opportunities abound for us to do the good we know we ought to do. We can start in our immediate families by working to make them strong, warm, affectionate and encouraging sources of support for all family members.

We also have plenty of opportunities beyond our families. God's Word tells us in James 1:27 that pure religion is to "look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (NIV).

God wants us to become more compassionate, to love people, to reflect His way of life. He wants us to become more like Jesus of Nazareth, who gave His life as a sacrifice for all mankind. Many opportunities exist for us to encourage, strengthen and otherwise show love for those in need. When we do those things, we are doing good works—sacrificing our time and energy for the well-being and benefit of others.

Understanding why we sin

Now that we have seen how the Bible defines sin—by what we do and don't do—let's examine another important question: Why do we sin?

The apostle Paul eloquently expressed the frustration we all have with sin: "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Romans 7:15).

Because Paul was human, just like us, he exclaimed: "If, then, I do what I will not to do . . . it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find" (Romans 7:16-18).

As Paul noted, we have only limited natural ability to conform properly to the standards and values God defines in His law.

Jesus explained that we may be willing—have a desire—to do what is right, yet we fail because our flesh is weak and susceptible to temptation. "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). The weakness of the flesh plays a major role in leading us to sin.

Let's let the Scriptures explain why we often abandon our resolve not to sin and give into temptations.

James plainly states that sin is generated through our selfish desires, because "each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin" (James 1:14-15). Our flesh is not inherently evil, but it is inherently weak. As a result, the selfish pulls and appetites of our flesh tempt us to sin.

Paul expressed the magnitude of the problem when he wrote: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24). Paul's answer: "I thank God; [deliverance will come] through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (Romans 7:25). Paul makes it abundantly clear that our sins arise from uncontrolled desires of the flesh.

When is desire evil?

Is desire always bad? When Paul said, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells" (Romans 7:18), did he mean that our every desire is evil?

Certainly not! He could have said, just as accurately, "I know that in my flesh dwells nothing that is inherently evil."

The flesh, in and of itself, is neutral in regard to sin and righteousness. In fact when God finished His creation, including Adam and Eve with their bodies made of flesh, as ours are, He observed "everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Nothing that God makes is inherently evil.

Without desires our lives would be drab and purposeless. Desires serve as motivating forces in our lives. That is why God created the fleshly mechanisms that stimulate desires within our bodies.Our own observations should confirm that the appetites and other needs that are natural to our bodies have good and healthy purposes. If we had no desire for food, we would die of starvation. But that same desire, if not properly controlled, leads to overindulgence and gluttony—and could even lead to stealing from others. It is not the natural desires or appetites of the flesh that are sinful. It is the way we manage them that is good or evil.

Our need for self-control

Our challenge, then, is to properly manage our desires. God expects us to seek and use His help to direct them into legitimate channels.

While defending himself before Felix, the Roman governor, the apostle Paul "reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come" (Acts 24:25). Maintaining self-control is one of the major points of the gospel. Paul admonishes us to "make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts" (Romans 13:14). Rather, we must control our desires so they do not become sinful lusts.

Sin tends to have a domino effect. It accelerates. Once a desire becomes an out-of-control lust, a series of other reactions begins. Attitudes toward God and other human beings are particularly affected. A wrong spirit develops. That is why Paul urges us to "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 7:1).

The carnal mind

A blinded mind, confused by its selfish "lusts of the flesh" and the "wiles of the devil," is referred to in the Scriptures as a "carnal mind." Paul writes: "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans 8:5-7).

Notice that Paul defines a "carnal mind" as a mind "set . . . on the things of the flesh." The word carnal is simply a synonym for "fleshly." (Be sure to read "What's Wrong With Our Human Nature?".)

Paul uses the analogy of slavery to illustrate the degree of human subjugation to the pulls of the flesh, as they are influenced and manipulated by Satan. "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:16-18).

Counteracting a weakness of law

God's law is perfect (Psalm 19:7). It is spiritual, holy, just and good (Romans 7:12-14). But the apostle Paul explains that, although God's law defines what is sin (Romans 7:7), it cannot prevent sin. It gives us knowledge of the weakness of the flesh, but it provides no direct power to subdue the flesh.

"What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature [of physical flesh] like our sinful nature, to do away with sin. God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law [obedience to God's commandments] might be fully satisfied in us who live according to Spirit, and not according to human nature" (Romans 8:3-4, Good News Bible).

The power to rule over our fleshly desires and impulses must come from God through His Spirit. "I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Galatians 5:16-17).

Next we will see how our sins are forgiven so we can receive God's Holy Spirit and have the power to resist and overcome sin.