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Foundations Lesson 6: What is Sin?

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

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What's the big deal about sin? In a world where the poor are living on sidewalks with no roofs over their heads, in a world where sickness afflicts and cancer refuses to discriminate, what is all the talk about sin? Is it really that important? We all admit we hate poverty, sickness, war, and death, but unfortunately many do not hate sin and that's the big deal about sin. Sin is the single greatest plague and self-inflicted wound to face the human race and it is the least hated of all. If you remember nothing else in this lesson, remember this! I hope to impress upon you today the importance and magnitude of sin, because there is more evil in the smallest sin than in the greatest pain, poverty and calamity that can afflict you.

Much of the Bible and the very basics of the Gospel of Jesus will not make sense to you if you do not know the ugliness of sin. The very heart of the Gospel has at its core that only Jesus can save us. Save us from what? What would be the first thing you would list: Jesus saves us from brokenness? From our fears? From sickness, poverty, pain or bad emotions? God's word in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 tells us that Christ died. Why? He died for our sins. This is a rudimentary foundation of the Gospel: Jesus died for our sins.  The first and biggest problem you currently face in your life may not be what you might think. It is not finances. It is not work and relationship struggles. Why is sin such a big deal? God whom we sin against is a big deal! But, what exactly is sin?

1. Toward a definition of sin

The first thing I want to do is get at a biblical definition of sin: what is it? Wayne Grudem defines sin as follows: “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” God, who is Judge and King, has a law. In the first five books of the Bible, commonly called the Pentateuch, we have the narrative account of how God delivered his people out of Egypt and gave them a law, a set of ordinances and commands dictating how they ought to live so as to please God and live a life glorifying to him. The famous Ten Commandments are a summary statement of the law that God gave to his people. We find the classic “thou shalt nots.” “Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and so on. God’s law reveals to us his holy and just character and commands us to live righteous as he is righteous. Sin, as Dr. Grudem puts it, is failure to conform to that moral law.

Now, many read God’s law, and especially the Ten Commandments and what God requires and thinks of sin, as purely about what you don’t do. If you read carefully, the Ten Commandments are not just a list of what you don’t do, but also a list of what you should do. For instance, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is not just a negative command. If I say, “Don’t lie,'' I'm telling you a positive command to tell the truth. Behind a negative command, there is a positive one. So, if one were to lie, he is not just doing something he shouldn’t, he’s also not doing something he should. In theology this distinction has become known as the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Sins of omission are when you don't do what you’re supposed to do. Sins of commission are when you commit the thing you’ve been commanded not to do.

However, to press it further, sin is not merely about what you do or don’t do. Sin has to do with the heart itself. The staple piece of God’s law, the one command with which we could summarize the whole law is in Mark 12:30. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” God’s law commands the very affections of our heart to find in God, and God alone, our delight and satisfaction. If we do not love God with every aspect of our person, we fail to conform to the law of God.

Sin is not just an external issue, but a heart issue. Jesus said that from the heart comes all evil. Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount that unjust anger is murder, and that looking with lust is adultery. Now, Jesus is not conflating the two and saying they are exactly the same thing. But, what he is saying is that God’s law does not permit clean hands and a dirty heart. The command “do not commit adultery” is a command that binds your heart and your desires to faithfulness and purity. Unjust anger is murder because it breaks the heart of the command even if it doesn’t break the letter. Legalism and moralism are clipboard religions where God’s justice is checking off boxes. Far be it! God is not a legalist, he’s a realist. He sees your heart as it really is. He’s not concerned that you’ve jotted off giving to the poor if you secretly despise them. The heart of the whole law is that you love the Lord, and so love your neighbor as yourself. God demands that you keep his law from the heart, not just in what you do externally.

2. Sin is lawlessness/disobedience to God.

The sin of Israel is described like this in Joshua 5:6, “For the sons of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, that is, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished because they did not listen to the voice of the LORD, to whom the LORD had sworn that He would not let them see the land which the LORD had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.” In Ephesians 5:6 Paul describes sinners as “sons of disobedience.” “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” The law that God gave expresses his will and his upright and just character. God is good and holy and he demands that people live holy lives. Sin occurs when someone, who is in the presence of a Holy God, thinks, behaves and/or acts contrary to what is objectively and fundamentally reflective of the will of God as revealed in his law. Sin is fundamentally disobedience, or as 1 John 3:4 says, “Sin is lawlessness.” If you asked John what sin fundamentally looks like, he would say it looks like living your life without adherence to what pleases God and what God has required from us, in other words “lawlessness.”

We have been studying the doctrines of God for the last few weeks and one thing we discussed is the Lordship of God. God owns all that he has made, and so any moral aberration from what God intends for us is rebellion against his Lordship. When we sin, we tell the God of the universe, “I want it my way.” We challenge his Lordship and attempt to make ourselves lord over God. Sin is not only ugly because it can cause a lot of pain and suffering, but because it fundamentally is wrong. It's not okay to sin and it’s not okay to be a sinner. That's bad news, because I’m a sinner and I shouldn’t be. To sin is a cosmic crime. God, the King and Judge of all reality, is personally offended and his law is broken by our act of treason.

3. Sin is self-glorification.

We were made in the “imago Dei” (image of God), to reflect the glory of God in a unique way. We were made morally upright by God in the original creation, but ever since the fall, we have traded God’s infinite worth and value for cheap imitations. We invent poor gods. Our hearts are “Idol Factories”, as John Calvin once put it. The problem with sinners is that when we sin we live unto ourselves. Sin has a goal, the promotion of self to a place it doesn’t belong. We are not our own, either to live for or to please. Sin seeks to exalt us above the place of God. If righteousness has as its goal the kingdom of God and his glory, sin has its course set on self-exaltation.

4. Sin is unbelief.

2 Kings 17:14-15 says about sinful Israel, “However, they did not listen, but stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They rejected His statutes and His covenant which He made with their fathers and His warnings with which He warned them and they followed vanity and became vain, and went after the nations which surrounded them, concerning which the LORD had commanded them not to do like them.”

Sin is summarized well in this passage and we can see clearly that sin is motivated by the refusal to believe what God has said is true. Think about it. If you believed God when he says that sin leads to death, that there is no real and true gain in it, and that true joy is only found in him, would you choose to follow God every time? When you choose to sin, you are saying to God, “I don’t believe you.” If you think it's better to have a fit of unjust anger than to demonstrate self-control, then you call the Book of Proverbs a book of lies rather than of wisdom.

5. Sin will be judged.

I think this is the worst part in the sense that it is the hardest part to bear. What does God think of sin? What will he do about it? Sin does not take place in a vacuum, but it takes place in God’s world. In a holy God’s universe, to be unholy is to be an inch away from immediate justice. God is a just and righteous Judge. We are told in scripture time and time again that God will judge all for their deeds, and the issue is that we all have sinned.

The scriptures say in Isaiah 13:11, “Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless.” Proverbs 11:2, “Assuredly, the evil man will not go unpunished, but the descendants of the righteous will be delivered.” Paul says in Romans 2:5-6, “But, because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS.” We could go to several other passages, but the bottom line is that God will judge the living and the dead.

Our sin will be judged and this is hard to bear indeed, but there is good news in the face of this awful news. God has a real objective wrath against sin and all who commit it, so we are in need of a real objective salvation from sin. He has provided just that through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. We deserve just and absolute retribution for our sins and this would be perfect justice. But, for the mercy of God, he has made a way of salvation open to all who will repent and believe. The father has sent his son Jesus to be regarded as a sinner and to die as a substitute for us, so as to satisfy the real objective wrath of God. What does a sinner do to find peace with God after glorifying himself, disobeying God and acting on his unbelief? We must look to Christ who was treated as if he had glorified himself above God, as if he had disobeyed the Father, who was treated as if he didn’t believe what God said in his word. Jesus was treated by God on the cross as a liar, disobedient, unbeliever, unfaithful God hater, so you could be treated by God as a faithful, obedient, righteous son. This is the Gospel. It is grace, but it is not cheap. Sin cost the Son of God his life. But, in paying with his life, he gave us a new life shaped after him who loved us.

6. Original sin and original corruption

We’ve seen sin and its ugly nature, but from where did sin come? Why does everyone sin? The first thing to say is that mankind was originally created morally upright before God. Mankind was not morally neutral or an ethical blank space, but was essentially and naturally good before God and pleasing to Him. Sin, for the human race, began in the heart of Adam and Eve when unbelief entered through the temptation from the Serpent. The first sinner, however, according to the scriptures is Satan himself. John chapter 8 says that he is called the father of lies, and when people sin they are said to be following after the devil, indicating that he is the ringleader of the rebellious cause against God. Sin begins with the devil. As to the exact details of how this first sin by Satan took place, we do not exactly know. Scripture does not tell us how it is that he fell into sin. One thing we are sure without a shadow of a doubt is that God is not the origin of sin. The scripture tells us in James 1:13 and in Deut. 32:4 in the Old Testament that God is good and perfect and has eyes too pure to look on evil. The origin of sin is always found in the sinner, and each one who sins is responsible for their sin.

7. Inherited guilt

In a previous lesson, we discussed that the origin of sin for mankind is the story of Adam and Eve and how they rebelled against God. But, what we didn’t talk too much about is how their actions affect us. So, now we want to address this briefly.

As sons and daughters of Adam, scripture teaches us that we have inherited sin from him. In the Bible Adam is not just our great-great-(and so on)-grandpa, but a unique person who represented all of mankind in the Garden. Some have called this idea federal headship, that Adam was our legal representative in the garden. Now, there are two ways we have inherited sin, the guilt of Adam’s sin and a sinful nature just like his.

Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

Paul wants you to see two truths. First, that you are guilty of Adam’s sin. It's not just that you’re given the penalty for his sin, but that you're actually regarded as having committed the sin. We find this in verse 12, where it is said we all have sinned. “All have sinned” is past tense, and yet most of humanity was not even born when Paul wrote this. This probably means something like all have sinned in Adam, or with Adam or all are regarded as having sinned. The major point Paul is making is that everyone, all humanity, even those not yet born, are counted as sinners. The same idea seems to be taught in Romans 5:19 which says, “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Paul elsewhere summarizes this as “in Adam all die.” To speak of being “in Adam” is to speak of being in a kind of union with him. We all are born into a covenantal relationship to Adam, where his sin is legally regarded as ours, and so we receive the same punishment as he did because we are considered to have committed the same crime as he did. His sin is imputed or counted as ours. One might object to this and say, “Yea, but I didn’t sin with Adam, so that is totally unfair." I would simply respond, “Neither did you totally obey God as Christ did. Is it totally unfair that God would save you through Jesus’ obedience and show you mercy on his behalf?” Even though all of us were born outside of the Garden, we are all counted sinners because of the sin of Adam. We who believe are regarded as having obeyed, as having been righteous because Jesus was. The Gospel is built on this very idea that we who once were in Adam are now in Christ. Before we received just condemnation, now we receive righteousness and eternal life through Jesus.

8. Inherited corruption

But, to speak of inherited guilt is not all there is to say. There is another way we inherit sin from Adam. We also inherited a corrupt nature.  Man, due to the sin of Adam, has been corrupted by sin. It is said of fallen man "by nature we are children of wrath." (Eph.2:3) God himself said, "The intentions of man's heart are evil from their youth." (Gen.8:21) David confessing his sin in Psalm 51 says, "Behold in iniquity, I was brought forth, and in sin my mother conceived me." David does not excuse his sin by saying that sin was something new to him or something uncharacteristic, but states that sin affected his person from the point of his conception. David confesses the fact that he sins because he is a sinner; he does corrupt things because his person was corrupted by sin all of his life, even from birth! Paul seems to say something similar by teaching that being children of wrath is natural to us since the fall in the Garden. (Eph.2:3) It is natural to us because we are the fallen sons and daughters of Adam.

9. What is the extent of sin?

A term we have not yet introduced in this course is ‘total depravity.’ Total depravity in theology is the idea that mankind, since the fall, to the core of his person, his will, his affections and all his endeavors is tainted by sin. Some people misunderstand and think we’re saying that man is as sinful as he could be, but this is not the case. Rather, people certainly have the potential to be far more evil, but what we’re talking about is the extent of sin. There is no part of your person that is not affected by sin. Scripture holds no bars in identifying people as sinners, and Jesus himself traces sin back to the very heart. Even our affections are in bondage to sin.

Another term that is not to be confused with total depravity is ‘total inability’.

The term ‘total moral inability’ can be confusing, but to put the term simply, it means that because man, to the core of his nature is corrupted by sin, he is incapable of doing spiritual good. Paul says concerning the mind of one who is in the flesh, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:7-8) Inability is like Joseph’s brothers in Genesis where we are told that "they could not speak peacefully to Joseph." That doesn’t mean that they were somehow forced to not speak kindly to poor Joseph. It meant that they were totally unwilling to do so. The orientation of the mind and of the heart is set on the flesh, so that the disposition of the sinner is hostile to God and cannot do good works voluntarily. On the other hand, the one who is living according to their sin cannot please God because God cannot be pleased by sin. Inability is a two way street: “I can’t and I won’t please God." This is part of why we are so forceful about saying that God must save people. We have no desire or capacity in ourselves to do the things which please God, but need his mercy and grace to be able to do so. This is why Jesus said we must be born again. That which is of flesh is flesh and that which is of spirit is spirit. (John 3)

10. The death of sin

We can’t save ourselves. I think that’s been set in stone, and yet we really need saving.  God is the judge and he has judged us all as sinners. We cannot make up for our sin and we cannot do enough good to cover the wickedness of our sin. We need something totally outside of ourselves. Let’s read some good news. Romans 5:9 “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for our sins.” How do sinners this side of the fall get peace with God? The core of the Gospel is that Jesus died for our sins. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Our sin was imputed to Christ. God did not just give the penalty of our sin to Jesus, but gave the penalty because he counted Christ guilty of our sins. Jesus was counted as a sinner before the eyes of God and bore what we sinners deserved. He bore our guilt and punishment and made a death of sin. He killed it decisively, so that all who trust in him may find forgiveness and transformation. Speaking about sin is tough because we all have sin. With objective sin come the pain of guilt and the horrid reality of being separated from communion with God. But, through the new and better Adam (Jesus Christ), we have received grace and peace, and have been made new.

In the next lesson, we will be looking at who Jesus is and what the cross is all about, but I don't want to leave you in suspension about how we pass from this state of slavery to sin to being children of God. By the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, each one who repents of their sin and places their trust in him, receives Jesus’ righteousness in place of their guilt, forgiveness in place of their shame, and progressive transformation in place of the enslaving passions of sin.

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