What is Sin?

1 - The Fundamental Problem

The first step in any well-planned journey is to determine our destination. We need to know where we are going in order to know how we will be able to get there. If we wish to stop sinning, to have complete, total and permanent victory over sin, we need to know what that victory will look like. We need to have a firm vision of ourselves free from sin, and to understand what that will mean to our lives.

Those of us who have been raised in any western culture influenced by the Christian tradition will have been told, from the very beginning of our lives, that we are "sinners." In some religions - even in some individual homes - this is stressed to a greater or lesser degree, but the idea is almost always present. Just by being who we are, we are told, we are not in the good graces of the Almighty Creator.

Of course, it would be abusive to simply say to a child, "You're a sinner, you can't do anything right in God's eyes" and leave it at that. A family that has been instructed in the Gospel will make sure that the child understands that despite this identity, of being a "sinner," God loves them nevertheless, and wants to be pleased with them. And how is this to be accomplished? How can we make God be pleased with us? Why, by accepting Jesus, His Son, into our hearts. He took the penalty for our sins, and suffered the displeasure of God the Father, so that He can be pleased with us, and accept us as His children.

I am using very simple terms here, as a parent would to a child, but the essence of the above is how the Gospel is generally presented.

Certainly, there is nothing erroneous about what is written above, especially as a first-introduction to the idea of salvation. But the fundamental problem that pops up over and over again is that the word "sinner," and the very concept of "sin," is often poorly defined, if it is ever defined at all. It often takes the form of a circular definition, something like this:

- Why is God not pleased with me? Because I am a sinner.

- What is a sinner? Someone that does things God dislikes.

- So then, what is sin? Something that God dislikes.

If the child asks what "sin" is, he will usually get examples of what "sins" are. This is a subtle difference, but it is very important. "Sins," as explained to a child (or anyone, really) will take the form of bad actions: stealing, telling lies, hurting other people, and so on. But if "sin" is not properly defined, then those who are only told what "sins" are will develop a belief that God is mostly interested in what they do, or don't do, as opposed to who they are.

Most religions in the world, in fact, could accurately be described as works-based religions. Even those that say they are "faith only" or "grace only" will, in practice, have a definition of sin that focuses on what people "should" be doing, but might not be doing. But, friend, we desire something better. We not only want to have victory over "sins," which would be stopping this or that bad action. We want to have victory over "sin," the "thing" that causes one to be a sinner and therefore do sinful things. Let us define our terms properly, by which I mean "Biblically," and we will see more clearly the journey ahead.

2 - The Definition of "Sin"

If you have the benefit of an electronic or online Bible that can do word searches, you might appreciate this experiment.

First, type in the phrase "sin is"

You will find some verses that say that someone's "sin is" very great, or that someone's "sin is" hid. There is one verse that reads, "Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people." (Proverbs 14:34) That tells us more about what sin does to a people than what it actually is. In fact, of the 11 "hits" that I find in the King James Bible (although it is very similar in other versions) I find only one that is actually a definition. It is this verse:

"Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law." (1John 3:4)

Second, type in the phrase "is sin"

Perhaps we can find out, that way, that something "is sin," and that will serve as a definition in addition to the verse from 1 John.

This time, we get fewer hits (6 instead of 11); however, these hits are more promising in terms of providing a definition. Let's look at these:

"An high look, and a proud heart, and the plowing [the land that can be plowed] of the wicked, is sin." (Pro 21:4)

"The thought of foolishness is sin, and the scorner is an abomination to men." (Pro 24:9)

"And he that doubteth is damned if he eat [something that offends a fellow believer], because he eateth not of faith; for whatsoever is not of faith is sin." (Rom 14:23)

"The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law." (1Cor 15:56)

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." (James 4:17)

"All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not unto death." (1John 5:17)

These verses give us quite a bit of information, but what I would ask is that you look for what these six quotations all have in common.

The common thread in all the above is that none of them are really focused on actions. You might think that Paul's could be, because he's talking about eating (which is an action), but we note that the action is made sinful because the eater is one that "doubeth." Similarly, James in the fifth verse is speaking about "doing" things - but note that he does not list any particular action, and points out that this or that action is sinful only to those who "knoweth" something and avoid the duty of performing it.

The definition of sin in these verses is all about the state of mind. In fact, some of them make it explicitly clear. "The thought of foolishness is sin," the Proverbs tell us. John points out that "all unrighteousness" is sin, and this is not limited to the things we do in the physical world. Suppose there was a man with an evil heart, but he figured out a way to profit financially, or in terms of authority, by doing good deeds. Is such a man Christ-like? Is such a man holy? Clearly not, therefore while "sins" may refer to individual actions, the concept of "sin" is far more encompassing, and speaks of the state of the heart and mind.

"A proud heart" the first verse above tells us, is sin.

The Bible is perfectly consistent about this teaching, and in both testaments. "Sin" is a condition, a state of being, and a quality of the mind and heart. If we wish to have victory over sin, which will lead us to instantly, permanently, cease from committing the "sins" that result from "sin" (so to speak) then we must conquer the mind and heart that are in opposition to the law of God.

"But wait a minute," one may say, "that very first verse we found is about actions, because John says that sin is ‘the transgression of the law,' and that means breaking a commandment or rule."

It may help readers to note that in the language that John used to write that passage, the phrase "transgression of the law" was translated into English from a single word, anomia. The best understanding for that word is not, "to break a rule," but something much simpler: lawlessness.

If I were to describe someone I know as "lawless," most people would not immediately begin to wonder what specific crimes he had committed. Rather, they would understand that I am describing someone who has no respect for the law at all. Any crime that this person commits is because of that lack of respect, that lack of desire to be a responsible and orderly citizen. This is precisely what John is describing. "Sin" is "anomia." It is, in perfect harmony with all the other definition-type verses that we found, not about the actions, but about the character of the individual himself.

3 - Summary

What we have seen is that we must properly define our terms, to make sure that when we speak of the Bible, and what we have learned from It, that we have as close an understanding as possible to the intended meaning, the basic message. We have seen that the terms "sins," which tends to indicate actions, is often confused with "sin" which is a broad concept that the Scriptures use to describe a state of mind and character.

What we must have, through the power of Christ, is control over our thoughts and emotions, (1Cor 2:16, Phil 2:5) thus conquering "sin" within us, and entirely ceasing from "sins" in our outward actions. This can only be done through the Gospel, and it is the sign of a true and faithful believer, for "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, for His Seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." (1John 3:9)

In our next article, we will look at the difference between "temptation" and "sin." Understanding this distinction can be both encouraging and strengthening to our faith.