The Heart of It All: Sin

September 18, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

What Is Sin?

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

This set of articles is going to address the topic of sin. It will cover the definitions of sin, the origins of sin and its effects on humanity and the world, and will touch on God’s plan for redemption from sin. (Redemption will be covered at length in subsequent articles.)

Sin is an important topic to cover, since it affects the life of every human being and is what has caused the separation of humans from God. Thankfully, God, in His love and mercy, has made salvation from sin available to humanity through Jesus’ suffering and death. As Christians, we have the incredible blessing of being forgiven for and redeemed from our sins. We are saved from the punishment of sin in the afterlife, a gift which is of inestimable value, as we will live forever with God. Sadly, we live in a world with many who don’t know that salvation is available. It is our mission as Christians to share the good news of the Gospel with them.

As Christians, it is important for us to understand the various aspects and effects of sin in our personal lives as well as in the lives of others we are trying to reach and help; also, it motivates us to bring the good news of salvation from sin to those who haven’t yet received it. It also helps us to better understand and explain to others why evil things happen in our world, and the origin of many of the problems and suffering humankind faces today. Having a fuller picture of sin helps us to better understand and communicate to others the need for and importance of salvation, while bringing about a deeper appreciation for our own salvation and what we’ve been saved from. While we’ve been blessed with redemption, for those who reject salvation, the effects of sin will have serious long-term consequences, not just in this life but in the life to come.

Christian philosopher Rufus M. Jones offers the following exposition of sin:

Sin is no abstract dogma. It is not a debt which somebody can pay and so wash off the slate. Sin is a fact within our lives. It is a condition of heart and will. There is no sin apart from a sinner. Wherever sin exists there is a conscious deviation from a standard, a sag of the nature, and it produces an effect upon the entire personality. The person who sins disobeys a sense of right. He falls below his vision of the good. He sees a path, but he does not walk in it. He hears a voice, but he says “no” instead of “yes.” He is aware of a higher self which makes its appeal, but he lets the lower have the reins. There is no description of sin anywhere to compare with the powerful narrative out of the actual life of the Apostle Paul, found in Romans 7:925. The thing which moves us as we read it is the picture here drawn of our own state. A lower nature dominates us and spoils our life. “What I would, I do not; what I would not, that I do.”[1]

The main topic of these articles is sin in humanity in general and the effects and consequences of sin on human beings overall. It will also touch on the sins or weaknesses of Christians, but that is not the main focus.

What Sin Is

The most common Hebrew word used for sin in the Old Testament is chata, which is defined as “to miss the goal or path of right and duty, to miss the mark, to wander from the way.” The Old Testament also uses words translated as to break off (as in breaking God’s covenant), transgression of God’s will, rebellion, going astray.

The New Testament uses a variety of words when speaking of sin. These are translated as violate, transgress, overstep, miss the mark, go past, fall beside, failure, wrongdoing, deviate from the right path, turn aside, a deviation from truth and uprightness, unrighteousness of heart and life, lawlessness, ungodliness, unbelief, rebellious disobedience, and falling away.

Some definitions of sin from theologians are as follows:

Sin may be defined as the personal act of turning away from God and His will. It is the transgression of God’s law … the violation of God’s command. It is the turning away from God’s expressed will.[2]

We define sin in general as a deviation from the divine moral law, no matter whether that law has been written in the human heart, or communicated to man by positive precept [through Scripture].[3]

Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.[4]

While God has expressed His will and moral law through the Bible, there was a time when the Bible didn’t exist. There are also many who haven’t heard of it or read it, or don’t know that it contains truth about God and His will. However, all throughout history humans have inherently known God’s moral law to some extent, as God has embedded it in the heart of each person.

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.[5]

While many people do not specifically know the moral laws of God as expressed in Scripture, everyone has a basic understanding that murder, stealing, lying, etc., are wrong, which is evidence of an overall moral consciousness that humans have. This understanding is often referred to as natural law or moral law and is contained within the Ten Commandments, some of which state:

You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.[6]

Because humans have intuitive knowledge of the moral law within them, they have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, of moral accountability. Their conscience “bears witness.”

J. I. Packer offers the following explanation:

Conscience has in it two elements, (a) an awareness of certain things as being right and wrong, and (b) an ability to apply laws and rules to specific situations. Conscience, as distinct from our other powers of mind, is unique; it feels like a person detached from us, often speaking when we would like it to be silent and saying things that we would rather not hear. We can decide whether to heed conscience, but we cannot decide whether or not it will speak; our experience is that it decides that for itself. Because of its insistence on judging us by the highest standard we know, we call it God’s voice in the soul, and in that extent so it is.[7]

Wayne Grudem explains it this way:

The consciences of unbelievers bear witness to God’s moral standards, but at times this evidence of God’s law on the hearts of unbelievers is distorted or suppressed. Sometimes their thoughts “accuse” them, and sometimes their thoughts “excuse” them, Paul says. The knowledge of God’s law as derived from such sources is never perfect, but it is enough to give an awareness of God’s moral demands to all mankind. (And it is on this basis that Paul argues that all humanity is held guilty before God for sin, even those who do not have the written laws of God in Scripture.)[8]

God’s expressed moral law and will in Scripture, and each person having an intuitive knowledge of the moral law and a conscience that bears witness when they break the moral law, means that all humans—whether they know Scripture or not—are aware that they fail to conform to or that they deviate from the moral law, and that they are doing wrong.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.[9]

While the sins humans commit are often sins against others, such as stealing from someone or lying about them, and while these sins can also damage the person committing the sin, they are first and foremost sins against God. To do such things is to break the moral laws of God; however, more importantly, these are sins against the Lawgiver Himself. They are an affront to His holiness and righteousness, and cause a separation between human beings and Him.

Sin Is Universal

The Bible teaches that sin is universal—that every human being, with the exception of Jesus, has been and is a sinner. Both the Old and New Testaments speak of everyone as sinners and no one as fully righteous.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.[10]

No one living is righteous before You.[11]

Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”?[12]

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.[13]

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.[14]

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.[15]

The universality of sin is a concept that is present even in many pagan religions, which confirms that humankind has an intuitive understanding of God’s moral law, and of man’s sinful condition. Throughout the ages, religions made sacrifices because they believed they had displeased their gods.

Rufus M. Jones writes:

That is human nature. That feeling is deep-rooted in man wherever he is found. He is conscious that sin separates and he feels that something costly and precious is required to close the chasm. Sacrifice is one of the deepest and most permanent facts of the budding spiritual life. Its origin is far back in history. The tattered papyrus, the fragment of baked clay, the pictorial inscription of the most primitive sort, all bear witness to this immemorial custom. It is as old as smiling or weeping, as hard to trace to a beginning as loving or hating. It is bound up with man’s sense of guilt, and was born when conscience was born.[16]

Louis Berkhof wrote:

The heathen religions testify to the universal consciousness of sin and of the need of reconciliation with a Supreme Being. There is a general feeling that the gods are offended and must be propitiated in some way. There is a universal voice of conscience, testifying to the fact that man falls short of the ideal and stands condemned in the sight of some higher Power. Altars reeking with the blood of sacrifices, often the sacrifices of dear children, repeated confessions of wrongdoing, and prayers for deliverance from evil—all point to the consciousness of sin.[17]

Where Did Sin Originate?

Before God created the universe, sin didn’t exist, as only God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—existed. It is clear from Scripture that God is holy and that He doesn’t abide evil and doesn’t sin. Therefore, sin would not have been present before God created the angels.

When God created moral beings, angels and humans, He created them with free will. He created them with the ability to make moral choices, and in doing so, made it possible for them to choose to do good and right. However, giving them free will also allowed for the possibility for them to choose to do wrong. Their freewill choice to disobey God is where sin originated. God did not cause the moral beings He created to sin. However, they freely chose to disobey His commands and expressed will, and thus to sin. (More on this below.)

God is not the author of sin. He is holy; He separates Himself from sin. He doesn’t commit sin, He does no wickedness or wrong, and He doesn’t tempt people to do evil. Evil is the absence of good. It’s not a physical thing that is created. Evil is, in a sense, the absence of God, just as darkness is the absence of light. God couldn’t create evil, as if He did, He would be acting against His nature and character, which God does not do, and in fact cannot do. Let’s take a brief look at how the Bible expresses God’s holiness and righteousness and His outlook on sin:

The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is He.[18]

The Lord is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.[19]

Far be it from God that He should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that He should do wrong.[20]

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one.[21]

In the King James Version of the Bible there is a verse which says, I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.[22] This translation can be seen as meaning that God created moral evil. While the Hebrew noun ra, translated as evil, can mean moral evil, it has other meanings as well, such as disaster or calamity, which aren’t moral evils. Most modern translations don’t use the word evil in this verse, but rather disaster or calamity. The ESV renders the verse this way:

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.

God hates sin and it is an abomination to Him.

These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.[23]

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.[24]

For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God.[25]

The Lord tests the righteous, but His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.[26]

While God didn’t create or cause sin, He did create a universe with creatures that have free will, which meant that His free-will creatures could choose to do wrong. In His omniscience and foreknowledge He knew this would happen, and in His love and mercy He made the way to reconcile humankind to Himself.

Theologian Jack Cottrell states:

If there were only rocks and trees and animals, “right and wrong” would still not be applicable. But with the creation of angels and men, who have the unique capacity consciously to choose to act either within or against the will of God, right and wrong suddenly become meaningful concepts, since there now exists the potential for the reality of moral evil or sin.[27]

Before the first humans sinned, sin was present in the spiritual or angelic world. Angels were created as immaterial beings without physical bodies. They are created moral beings with free will and the ability to choose to do right or wrong, as evidenced by the fact that at some point they were faced with a moral choice in which some angels chose wrongly and fell away from God while others chose to remain true to God. Not much is said in Scripture about the fall of the angels, as to when it happened or what the sin was, though it is commonly understood to be pride. In any case, some of the angels sinned and are thus separated from God. They are now referred to as fallen angels and their leader as the Devil, or Satan.

God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment …[28]

The angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, He has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.[29]

Then He will say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”[30]

The next article will discuss sin’s entrance into the world of humanity.

[1] Rufus M. Jones, The Double Search—Studies in Atonement and Prayer (Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston Co., 1906), 60–61.

[2] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 222.

[3] John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1934), 212.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 490.

[5] Romans 2:14–15.

[6] Exodus 20:13–17.

[7] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology, chapter Conscience (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 96.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 122.

[9] Romans 3:19.

[10] Isaiah 53:6.

[11] Psalm 143:2.

[12] Proverbs 20:9.

[13] Ecclesiastes 7:20.

[14] 1 John 1:8.

[15] Romans 3:23.

[16] Rufus M. Jones, The Double Search—Studies in Atonement and Prayer (Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston Co., 1906), 66–67.

[17] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 239.

[18] Deuteronomy 32:4.

[19] Psalm 92:15.

[20] Job 34:10.

[21] James 1:13.

[22] Isaiah 45:7.

[23] Zechariah 8:16–17.

[24] Proverbs 6:16–19.

[25] Deuteronomy 25:16.

[26] Psalm 11:5.

[27] Jack Cottrell, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 249.

[28] 2 Peter 2:4.

[29] Jude 6.

[30] Matthew 25:41.