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What is sin?

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Published: 22 June 2021 (GMT+10)

Before someone can understand the Good News of the Gospel, it is important to have the foundation of the ‘bad news’. Before we can appreciate the salvation that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, we have to understand what we need to be saved from.

It is surprising the number of Christians who would not know exactly what sin is, when our sin is the very reason Jesus had to sacrifice Himself to save us.

Sin as active or passive disobedience to a known divine command

The first place we should go to define sin is, of course, Genesis 3, which records the first human sin. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They suffered consequences in line with their disobedience.

This is the simplest category of sin to recognize and define, because it is so clear-cut. God gives us commands in Scripture; when we disobey them, that is sin. This could be active, doing something we shouldn’t do, as in the case of Adam eating the fruit. Or it could be passive, failing to do something we should, as when David failed to offer the proper sacrifice when he conducted the census of Israel.

Some people might ask what right God has to give us commands and punish us when we disobey. God is the Creator of the world and us. So He not only gives us life, but everything we need to sustain it. As such, He owns us and has the right to expect our obedience. Furthermore, His laws are not arbitrary but for our good. Much of the sin God judges has not only detrimental effects for the sinner, but those around the sinner.

Sin as failure to live up to the law in one’s heart

The people of Israel had the Law, and today a large portion of the world has access to the Bible. But there have been many people in history and who currently live today with no knowledge of God, yet they are still counted as sinners. There are a couple of ways the Bible explains this.

First, everyone has some knowledge of God. Romans 1:19–20 says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” When people fail to respond properly to the knowledge about God they are given, that is sin.

Second, everyone has moral knowledge. Romans 1:29–32 says, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

One example of this moral knowledge is our conscience. Romans 2:14–16 says, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

Sin as a condition

Romans 5:14 says, “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” In other words, between Adam and Moses, God did not give the sort of law that one could transgress by disobeying a command. But even those between Adam and Moses are said to have sinned, even if they didn’t transgress. How is this possible?

This is possible because the sin problem goes deeper than our actions—sin is more than what we do, it goes to the heart of what we are. We sin because we are sinners. That’s how David was able to say he was sinful even from conception in his mother’s womb (Psalm 51:5). Even though he didn’t have the ability or opportunity to commit sin in the womb, he recognized that the sinful nature he inherited from his parents and ultimately from Adam was present at the earliest moment of his life.

The Israelites had the Mosaic Law. But even this could not prevent sin despite being “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Rather, it brought death because only Christ could keep it perfectly (Romans 3:23; Galatians 3:10–14).

This is why our efforts to address our sinfulness on our own don’t work. While Adam and Eve had the ability not to sin, their descendants (except Jesus) lack the ability not to sin. We can try to avoid behaviors, but that doesn’t go to the problem of our sinful nature. Even the Apostle Paul lamented that sin was so pervasive that he could not avoid wrong actions (Romans 7:15–25). God says that we need to be transformed. This transformation is described using different imagery throughout Scripture. Sometimes the language of cleansing is used (Psalm 51:2; Jeremiah 33:8; 1 John 1:9), or replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of being born again (John 3:3).

Jesus’ victory over sin

The pervasive nature of sin could make us despair of ever being free from it, and if we only consider what we are able to do about it, we would be right. That’s why Jesus had to come into the world, live a perfectly righteous human life, and die the death that we deserved for sin. Because Jesus never sinned (and indeed could not have sinned) and was fully human, His death can pay for our sins. And because Jesus is fully God as well as fully man, His sacrifice can atone for as many people as will call on His name.

Part of Jesus’ victory over sin means that He not only makes us legally righteous through His sacrifice (justification); the Holy Spirit applies salvation to us in a process called sanctification where we become more righteous over time as we walk with Christ. The process of sanctification is finished after death, when the believer enters the presence of Christ (Philippians 1:23) to await the bodily resurrection.

Jesus’ victory over sin will be completely manifested in the New Heavens and New Earth, when the effects of the Fall will be reversed in a restoration of Creation. However, this is not simply a return to Eden, but a transformation that will be greater than Eden. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as consummation.

At that time, believers will be resurrected in bodies that are free from the effects of sin, and thus will never age, sicken, or die. The resurrection bodies of believers will be like that of Jesus, who is called the firstfruits of the resurrection. We will be like Him in another way: we too will be unable to sin.

Hell: God’s ultimate answer to unrepentant sin

As encouraging as it might be to think about the ultimate destiny of believers, it should be sobering to remember the fate of those who fail to trust in Jesus for salvation from sin. God originally created Hell for Satan and the other angels who followed Satan’s rebellion (Matthew 25:41). However, those who die without trusting in Christ will join the fallen angels in this place of eternal conscious torment.

Some believe that a God of love would not send people to Hell. This is a topic that must be handled with care, and I wrote an article on this topic that I recommend for more on this: Is God unjust for sending people to Hell?

One important point to note is that the Bible is clear that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). In fact, He demonstrated His love for us in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners and enemies of God (Romans 5:10).

As believers, we should be troubled by the thought that people still live their whole lives in some places in the world with no chance to hear the Gospel. Jesus commands believers to share the message with everyone across the whole world (Matthew 28:16-20). So we should be actively involved in sharing the Gospel and supporting missions, so that as many people as possible can hear and have the chance to be saved through Christ (Romans 10:14–15).

Helpful Resources

The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard Cover
From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $10.00
Soft Cover