Blog Post

What is Sin?

It doesn’t take much in the way of discernment to see that something is drastically wrong with the world in which we live. The mere fact that people would even think of walking into an elementary school and casually and violently extinguishing the lives of the most precious and, yet, most vulnerable among us ought to be enough to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that something is not right in the universe. Who of us hasn’t watched with horror and profound grief as images from these kinds of ghastly events have been displayed on our televisions or our phones and ipads? Who of us, in these moments of unbelievable tragedy, hasn’t longed for a world that is utterly free of this kind of evil and injustice?

But we don’t need to confine ourselves to only looking at school shootings. Many other things in the world show us that something is wrong. We put locks—and, sometimes, alarms—on our houses, our cars, our offices, our schools, and our stores for a reason. We hire police officers and security guards, because we think that we need them. We take to the streets to protest injustice, because even the very authorities that we look to for protection oftentimes fail us. We buy and carry guns, because we want to protect what we have and don’t trust others to do it for us. Something is wrong with the world in which we live, and that much should be overwhelmingly obvious to us all.

But it doesn’t take much self-reflection to realize that whatever is wrong with the world is also within each of us. No one has ever had to teach anyone to lie or to steal or to be selfish. Those things seem to come naturally for every human being. We all know that the testimony of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:14-25 applies to us as well. We recognize that there is a battle going on inside of us between the things that we should do and the things that we actually find ourselves doing. We are all aware that we fall short in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We don’t always think the right things; we don’t always say the right things; and we certainly don’t always do the right things. And this isn’t just a problem “out there” in the world at large. It’s a problem “in here” within each of our hearts as well. Something within every man, woman, and child is not right. It doesn’t take a lot of soul-searching to see that. But I’m not so sure that every man, woman, and child would be able to put their finger on exactly what it is that isn’t right either within themselves or within the world.

The Bible teaches that the problem with the world and with every person living in it is something called sin. According to the Bible, sin has separated us from God and from one another. It has set us at enmity with God, with ourselves, and with everyone else around us. Sin has infected our hearts, our minds, and our wills such that every aspect of our human psychology is affected. We can’t think sinlessly. We can’t desire sinlessly. And we can’t speak and act sinlessly. The Bible says that even our best deeds are tainted with sin (see Isa. 64:6). This means that there is no sin-free zone within any of us and no sin-free human being, who is not also God.

But what exactly is sin? And where did it come from? Is there any remedy for it? Or are we all simply doomed to live sin-infected lives in a sin-infected world forevermore? These are just some of the questions I would like to explore over the next few months. If sin is indeed the greatest problem we face, then it would certainly seem appropriate for us to understand a little more about it. Let’s start by considering what it is.

In 1 John 3:4, the apostle defines sin as “lawlessness.” And if God really is the source and standard of all law—as the Bible plainly insists that He is—then lawlessness would obviously be un-godliness, or anything that falls short of the standard of God Himself. This seems to be precisely what the apostle Paul is saying in Romans 3:9-10, when he links sin with unrighteousness. His point is that God is not only the standard of lawfulness but the standard of righteousness—or, we might even say, right-ness—as well. Everything that falls short of this standard is not right. It is un-righteous and un-just.

This means that every action we take, every thought we think, every desire or intention we have, and every word we speak which falls short of this standard—i.e., the standard of God Himself—is, by definition, sinful. Sin is, therefore, not a comparative category. It doesn’t exist on a continuum, through which only the worst sinners are pronounced guilty. No, according to the Bible, sin is more objective than that: people either meet the standard of godliness or they don’t. There is no middle ground; there is no curve. Even one instance of falling short of the standard of godliness is enough to warrant a verdict of ungodly. As James says, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Any amount of lawbreaking is lawbreaking, and any amount of ungodliness is ungodliness.    

But Paul says more than this in Romans 3. He not only links sin with ungodliness and unrighteousness, but he also connects it with “fall[ing] short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In doing so, he seems to be saying that all sin—however serious it may be—fails to give God glory as the one and only God of the universe and instead assigns the glory that He is rightly due to someone or something else. In other words, when I choose unrighteousness or ungodliness, I am setting myself up as a rival to God. I am setting my own desires or my own thinking as the standard of right-ness. And, thereby, I am in effect declaring to everyone around me, “I am God, and there is none other.”

Sin is, therefore, fundamentally a rejection of God as God. It is idolatry at its very core or, as so many ministers and theologians have said down through the ages, it is “cosmic rebellion” against God. When we think or act as though there is no God, we are sinning—which is why it is possible for a good deed to be a sin. If we do good deeds in order to give glory to ourselves, then we are falling short of the glory of God and are, therefore, sinning. If we do good deeds out of a desire to be recognized or appreciated or simply to feel good about ourselves, then we are falling short of the glory of God and are, therefore, sinning. Sin is a complete anti-God state of thinking, speaking, desiring, intending, and doing. It is, in its essence, ungodliness and unrighteousness or, as the apostle John said, it is lawlessness.

Defining sin in this way helps us to see why God takes it so seriously in the Bible and why He responds so strongly to it. As the complete anti-God state of mind, sin is, for that reason, the complete antithesis to what is best for every person in the universe. Let me explain what I mean here. Of necessity, the best thing that God can give to any one of us is Himself. If there is anything or anyone better than Him, then that “anything” or “anyone” would be God, because God, by definition, is the most glorious being in all the universe. The problem with sin is that it offers a substitute that cannot satisfy us. It offers good in place of what is best. It holds out a second-rate glory in lieu of the all-surpassing glory of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (see Phil. 3:8; 2 Cor. 4:17). As CS Lewis has so famously said, sin leads us to be content with making mud-pies in a slum when God has intended a holiday at the sea. We so often settle for sin instead of striving for God Himself. That’s why God takes it so seriously. And that’s why we should too.