What is Sin?

September 4, 2019
What is Sin?

The question we want to answer in this article is simply: What is sin? Now there are many other things that need to be addressed on this topic, and we typically want to provide application, but I want to spend the space here only answering that one question.

There are many in our day who would deny such a thing as sin. The word is repulsive to some and useless to others. Theologian Jack Cottrell has written that the modern man does not want to think of failures as sin “because sinconnotes a wrongdoing for which one is responsible before God, and modern man does not want to see himself in this light. He will take his evil and his failures to sociologists and psychologists, but not to God” (159). Cottrell goes on to quote Karl Menninger writing, “A problem may be ‘evil, disgraceful, corrupt, prejudicial, harmful,’ but never sinful” (159). So, the term itself has been abandoned by the popular culture and, more than that, even banned in some sense.

There are many terms used in the Scriptures and in Christian theology for the concept of Sin: Ignorance, error, inattention, missing the mark, irreligion, transgression, iniquity, lack of integrity, rebellion, treachery, perversion, abomination, sensuality, immorality, selfishness, and fallenness. (Many of these are listed and discussed in Erickson).

What is sin? Sin, simply put by one encyclopedia, is “A transgression of God’s commands or any failure to meet his standards; as a verb, the word means ‘to violate the divine law, to commit an offense against God or others’” (Zondervan EB). To give a more nuanced definition, theologian Millard Erickson writes, “Sin is any evil action or evil motive that is in opposition to God. Simply stated, sin is failure to let God be God and placing something or someone in God’s rightful place of supremacy” (513).

Erickson (515) goes on to teach us that our understanding of God gives us an understanding of sin. If God is imperfect or unaware or indulgent, then human behavior is not that serious. But, “If God is a very high, pure, and exacting being who expects all humans to be as he is, then the slightest deviation from his lofty standard is sin and the human condition is very serious.” Thus, we know what sin is because we know who God is. This is maybe the best insight we have into a definition of the concept of sin.

As good a place as any to get an introduction to the term and concept of sin is in Genesis 3-4 which recount the Fall of Adam and Eve and, later, the first murder as Cain killed Abel. Among many things that can be learned, here are just a few thoughts:

[Gen 4:6-7] God confronts Cain about his anger with a question. We would probably be safe to assume that he is allowing Cain to confess his sin (Gen 3:9). Cain knows right from wrong, he is conscious of God, but decides to rebel against Him. He did not trust God to accept him if he did well. “It takes faith to believe that God always does what is right” (Waltke, 98). Sin is personified in this verse. It takes on a serpent-like quality (“lies at the door”), and it desires to rule over the man. This creature or thing, as sin is seen, is supposed to be mastered instead by the man.

We can consider Psalm 51 as well, which is King David’s confession of sin after the Bathsheba episode and the ripple effects of it. Here are a few, brief comments:

[Ps 51:3-6] Confession of Sin: A variety of words are used for sin (which is a poetic way to stress the seriousness): transgression, sin, evil, iniquity.
There are a few things that are clear and must be confessed by all of God’s people:
(1) we have sinned
(2) our sin has offended God  
(3) God judges our sin blamelessly
(4) sin has affected us to our core

At the heart of sin is rebellion. Notice that the biblical concept is never separated from God. The term is very practical but also very theological. We rebel against God. We do not obey God. We trust ourselves more than we trust God! This is sin, and the perfect, holy, and just God must judge it righteously.

Now, I said at the beginning that I would not concern myself with giving application, but I do have one to share with you. Our understanding of sin will have massive implications for the nature and style of our ministry (Erickson, 515). If we actually believe that God is holy, then we will believe in the concept of sin. And if we believe in the concept of sin, then we will evangelize, calling on people to repent of their sins and be born again (ibid.). As Erickson plainly says, “If . . . the problems of society are rooted in radically perverted human minds and wills, then the nature of those individuals will have to be altered, or they will continue to infect the whole” (515). Sin perverts the individual human and the whole human race. Because we believe these things, which the Bible teaches, we make it our mission, as a church, to tell of the saving acts of God in Christ. We are going to preach the whole counsel of God. We are going to call on men and women to repent of their sins. We are going to tell people that they must be born again. This will dictate our preaching, teaching, evangelism, outreach, missions, youth ministry, and everything we do as a church.