Restoring a Biblical Understanding of Sin

As Christians, the concept of sin is fundamental to our understanding of the human condition. We recognise ourselves as sinners and a good deal of our Christian walk is committed to removing its influence from our lives and from the world around us. Yet when we look at people around us, many don’t seem to think of sin at all. When they do think about sin, it’s often regarded as just a label used by religious folk to make them feel guilty about their choices or to control the weak-minded. It’s also common to talk about sin flippantly, like indulging in a ‘sinful’ dessert, or enjoying a weekend away in ‘Sin City’. Sin is just not taken seriously. Of course, most people are still concerned with right and wrong but it is usually thought about subjectively, without the same sense of authority or gravity traditionally associated with sin.

It is easy for us to be influenced by these attitudes. We too can sometimes make light of sin and sweep some kinds of wrongdoing under the carpet. We are prone to trying to redefine sin into something more acceptable to us and the world around us. Do we take sin as seriously as God does? Our source of information on these matters is the Bible. Let’s take a look at what God has to tell us about sin.

Put simply, sin is disregarding and breaking God’s law (1 John 3:4). However, there is much more to it than this. The Bible uses many different words to talk about sin. Most commonly we see the Greek hamartia which contains the idea of falling short of the mark or missing the way. A compound form of this word is found in the Greek Bible (Septuagint) in Judges 20:16 to describe the idea of missing a target with a stone. Proverbs 19:2 is not found in the Greek Bible but a Hebrew word often used to describe sin is used there to describe taking a wrong path on a journey. In this way, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). We have chosen the wrong path and failed to meet the standard we’re aiming for. A number of words are found in both the Hebrew Bible and its Greek translation that give different shades of meaning to sin. There is a word to describe something ‘bent, twisted or perverted’. It is not the way it is supposed to be, a pathetic shadow of its intention. Another word indicates acts of rebellion and betrayal; a breaking of our relationship with God and each other (Genesis 50: 17; Amos 2: 4). Other words convey the idea of vanity, sorrow and guilt brought about by sin.

Sin began when Adam and Eve became discontent with following God, who had walked with them in the garden. Instead, they listened to the serpent and his deceptions (Genesis 3:1-6). They chose to be their own masters, rejecting God and his instruction. We see how this rebellion destroyed their relationship with God as they hid from him. It also diminished their relationship with each other. They covered themselves and began the blame game over their predicament (Genesis 3:7-13). Their choice to eat the fruit didn’t end the way they imagined. What they thought would elevate them ended up bringing them low. Through this one act all creation was cursed and now bears the consequences of their sin (Genesis 3:14-19).

When we put all these things together, we see a picture of sin in all its ugliness. Sin is an upheaval of the natural order: things are not as they should be. It is the created telling the creator, ‘No, I’m in charge’; the clay telling the potter how it should be made (Isaiah 45:9-11). We were created in the image of a perfect and holy God, created to be like Jesus (Romans 8:29). When we sin we’re not just breaking arbitrary rules but rebelling against God’s wise creation and loving purpose. Sin is taking what God created for good and twisting it into something corrupt.

This is the kind of futile thinking which Paul says characterises the sinner (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17). We think we know better but are wildly mistaken. Those things we do when we stray outside God’s will are futile and seldom good for us. Like Adam and Eve, they don’t achieve for us what we are seeking. This leads to an empty life which, as Christians, we have left behind (1 Peter 1:18). Paul understood this, which is why he considered everything associated with his former sinful life to be rubbish (Philippians 3:7-9). It was useless to him and gave him nothing in comparison to what was to be gained by knowing Christ and the life God had intended for him.

We need to recognise that sin is a lifestyle. It’s more than just disobeying some rules. Paul tells us that anything we do that is not from faith, is sin (Romans 14:23). He’s talking here specifically about a Christian whose conscience instructs them to avoid a certain food, but they eat it anyway. Even though there is nothing wrong with eating the food, they have broken their conviction before God (14:22); and so they sinned. They have acted not out of faith or respect for God, but out of convenience and weakness. What Paul is saying is that when we fail to act out of faith, we sin because we’re ignoring God’s place in our lives. Sin is about more than just our actions; it’s about our attitude towards God as we live our lives – our relationship with him. This is something that plays out daily. Are we living by faith, trusting God in everything, in step with the Spirit within us? Or are we trusting in ourselves and denying God’s presence and authority? It’s from this attitude that all our behaviour springs – whether sinful or righteous.

The most important thing we can learn about sin is contained in this statement: God sent Jesus to die for our sins (John 3:16-17). Sin is so serious to God that he gave his only Son as a sacrifice to solve the problem of our sin. Because of this, all who put their faith in Jesus can have the stain of sin removed. We are no longer slaves to sin and its futility (Romans 6:6-23). We can live as God’s obedient children and enjoy the abundant life he always intended for us (John 10:10).

This article first appeared in InterSections, May 2014.