What is Sin?

Intro: S-I-N. What is it? In our investigation of fundamental teachings of the scriptures, we will consider sin. So, what is sin? Without a doubt, the word itself is being lost to the world’s vocabulary. How often do you hear it in normal conversation? Even in religious circles, the word is sparingly used, and most often in a disparaging manner, as if we should all view it as an archaic and superstitious concept.

However, in the pages of the Bible, sin is everywhere. “It is a small word that begins a very long sentence.” (Bob Buchanon). The word is used 447 times in 388 verses of the Bible. If there is no such thing as sin, the Bible is a senseless legend, or worse yet, a hoax.

Unfortunately, Many Christians do not fully understand what sin is. They are satisfied with a very shallow perception of what it means to be a sinner. What can we learn from the scriptures?

I. Defining Sin in the OT: The Old Testament concept of sin was fundamentally that of disobedience to God’s command. It is not difficult to recognize this in Genesis 3, when sin first emerged. Adam and Eve were given a specific command, and they consciously disobeyed.

A. Under the Mosaic Law, sin is described more explicitly.

1. Exodus 34:7 mentions “iniquity and transgression and sin.” Iniquity, in the Hebrew, means literally “a perversion, distortion, often describing that which is bent or twisted; moral evil. Transgression has the original sense of conscious rebellion against God. It is used to include the guilt or punishment of the one who disobeys the law. The Hebrew word for sin in Ex. 34:7 means a “miss” or offence. Another OT word to consider is wickedness – a term that describes sin after it has become habitual. The wicked are worthless and fitted for destruction.

2. The OT scriptures present sin as a voluntary decision to disobey God’s word. There is no hint of sin as an inherited condition. E. R. Bernard noted, “It must also be observed that the Old Testament does not anywhere teach a corruption of human nature derived from Adam, still less an imputation of his guilt. All that it teaches is the universality of sin in Adam’s offsprings” (528).

B. The NT word most often translated sin is hamartia (ham-ar-tee-ah). It literally means a missing of the mark. That definition gives us an interesting image of an archer barely missing the bull’s-eye. (one lexicon illustrates the word this way). Although that is an accurate concept of the word, the imagery does not begin to cover all the word applications.

1. The arrow in the target picture seriously distorts our sense of sin’s gravity. The arrow is not quite center, but not a bad shot. A better illustration may be someone attempting to jump from the top of one building to the next. I once heard an old adage: There is nothing more dangerous than crossing a chasm in two leaps. That is missing the mark also, but the consequences are more serious. Is does not matter if you miss by just an inch. It is all or nothing. It is the same with sin. Sin is failure to clear the chasm; falling short.

2. In 1 John 3:4 John describes sin (hamartia) as lawlessness (iniquity.) (I John 3:4). The thought expressed here is a disregard for the standard of righteousness or law. It is to act as though there was no standard. In this sense, as in the OT, sin is disobedience to the law of God. Unger Dictionary says… “The underlying idea of sin is that of law and of a lawgiver. The lawgiver is God. Hence sin is everything in the disposition and purpose and conduct of God’s moral creatures that is contrary to the expressed will of God.” The concept of transgression leaves no room for an ambiguous gray area of subjectivism. You either obey or you disobey.

3. John also writes in 1 John 5:17 says “all unrighteousness is sin”. Sin as described in scripture includes not just what we do(commission), or fail to do (omission), but also what we think. We are to guard our thoughts and to be in control of our emotions. In Jesus’ comparative statements in the Sermon on the Mount (“you have heard that it was said, but I say unto you”) He makes it clear that sin begins in the mind (or heart), and cannot be defined in outward actions alone. Matt 5:27-28Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (KJV)

II. Why is Sin Sinful? How do people view sin today? When something is defined as being wrong (sinful), why is it wrong? In our time, right & wrong behavior is determined by an appeal to the societal definition of such humanistic terms as freedom, sexuality, racism, human rights, ecology, family values, etc. In this environment, sin is not only mis-defined, it is rendered irrelevant to human behavior. The futility of such self-direction was eloquently expressed by the prophet Jeremiah: “0 Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (10:23).

A. Paul provides a guiding principle in Romans 7:7 – What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” Paul’s statement establishes beyond question the relationship of sin to law. How do you know covetousness is wrong? Some societies may applaud it as healthy ambition. Covetousness is sin because it violates the law of God, not because it seems right or wrong. …sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4). Three implications of this clear definition of sin:

1. If God’s law defines sin, then my moral compass is not held captive to the societal assumptions of the day. I am free from the instability of moral relativism. I may agree with the modern, politically correct, abhorrence of racial hatred, but my moral abhorrence (and that of other Christians) depends, not on recent western concepts of human rights, but on the teaching of the Bible. My disapproval of all social and personal immorality rests on the same foundation. Christians have always lived in societies that tolerated and even celebrated sinful sexual behavior. But the sinfulness of such has never been in doubt among God’s people. This moral judgment has nothing to do with political rights, or tolerance, it is a question of law. Sin never becomes sin because of societal perceptions, whether those perceptions are right or wrong.

2. If God’s law defines sin, all unlawful behavior is equally hideous and blameworthy. There are many manifestations of sin, but every sin is an equal transgression of the law of God. New Testament listings of sins make this point, clustering together fornication, covetousness, maliciousness, murder, debate, deceit, whispering, covenant breaking, homosexuality, foolish talking, whore mongering, idolatry, lying, malice, and filthy communication out of one’s mouth (Rom. 1:29-32; Eph. 5:3-5; Col. 3:5-9).

3. If sin is defined by God’s law, knowledge of God’s word is essential to life. Ps 119:10-11With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! 11 Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.

III. The Offence of Sin: Strong’s dictionary provides an additional thought on the NT word for sin (harmatia). He provides the synonym “offence”. A sin is an “offense against”. Understanding that sin is an offense is a concept that we need to explore further.

A. Acts 25:8 – Paul said in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended at all.” The Greek word for “offended” here is the same word used for sin elsewhere (hamartano) and is translated sinned in the ASV. The NIV has “done nothing wrong”. Paul understood that it was possible to “sin against” the law and the Temple. But it was also possible to sin against, or offend, a person, such as Caesar.

1. Sin is an offense against another. Sin is a personal affront. We can see this concept illustrated in our own court system. When the prosecution presents its case against one who breaks the law, the case it not “the law vs. John Smith” (even though the law has been broken). But rather it is “the people vs. John Smith”. The very reason for the trial is not just because some rule has been broken but because the crime is an offense against the people. They are the ones prosecuting the criminal. The law asserts what ordinance was violated, but the offense is against the people.

2. So it is with sin, as defined in the Bible. We often take just clinical view of sin. We see it only as a violation of law and nothing more. This overlooks a major component of sin. It diminishes the gravity and impact of our own sin. It tends to depict sin as an emotionless, innocuous breaking of an arbitrary rule.

IV. The Impact of My Sin: Can you hurt God? Certainly there is no way to injure Him physically or overpower Him. But the Bible teaches that my sin hurts God.

A. Consider the prophet Hosea. God commanded him to marry a prostitute who would commit adultery against Hosea. In this circumstance the prophet became painfully aware of the treachery and offence of Israel’s sin. The nation’s sin was spiritual adultery as they chose their idols over God Himself. They were not just violating a law, they were betraying a trust and breaking up the marriage between God and His people. There was pain and heartbreak in Hosea’s life and it depicted the pain and heartbreak of God over the sins of His own people.

1. At one point Hosea accounts the pain in God’s heart over “the dissolving of the marriage” – Hos 11:8 – “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred.

2. Notice how God is insulted by our sinful living. God takes it personally.

• Jeremiah 2:55 Thus says the Lord: “What injustice have your fathers found in Me, That they have gone far from Me, Have followed idols, And have become idolaters?

• Micah 6:3-4 – 3 “O My people, what have I done to you? And how have I wearied you? Testify against Me. 4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

• Psalms 81:8-13 – 8 “Hear, O My people, and I will admonish you! O Israel, if you will listen to Me! 9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god. 10 I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. 11 “But My people would not heed My voice, And Israel would have none of Me. 12 So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, To walk in their own counsels. 13 “Oh, that My people would listen to Me, That Israel would walk in My ways!

B. Consider King David. David understood that his sin was an offense against his God and not just against a law book. It is an offense against Him as a person; against everything that he is and everything that he stands for. Psalms 51:44 Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight — That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge. King David’s words here were written in regards to his infamous sin with Bathsheba, and the subsequent murder of her husband, Uriah. Through Nathan’s rebuke he was exposed, and brought to a true position of repentance before God. Considering the nature and impact of his sin, David’s words might ring untrue to us. Did he only sin against God? His actions impacted others in devastating ways. (Adultery always does). So how can David say “against you only have I sinned”?

1. Even though his sin affected others, it was God who was the real offended One. It was His holy law the set the boundaries David crossed. Everything that was corrupted in his sin was created by God. His sin was an affront to the purity of marriage designed by God, to the purity of mind commanded by God, to the sanctity of life given by God, to the integrity of the Kingdom over which David ruled that was given to him by God. Everything that was corrupted by his sin was from God, and was pure when God provided it. So it is with our own sin.

2. How can we properly repent of sin unless we fully recognize what it is? Albert Barnes makes this application to David’s words in Psalm 51 – “The state of mind here illustrated is that which occurs in every case of true penitence. It is not merely because that which has been done is a violation of human law; it is not that it brings us to poverty or disgrace; it is not that it exposes us to punishment on earth from a parent, a teacher, or civil ruler; it is not that it exposes us to punishment in the world to come: it is that it is of itself, and apart from all other relations and consequences, “an offence against God;” a violation of his pure and holy law; a wrong done against him, and in his sight. Unless there is this feeling there can be no true penitence; and unless there is this feeling there can be no hope of pardon, for God forgives offences only as committed against himself; not as involving us in dangerous consequences, or as committed against our fellow-men.”

3. In Paul’s various admonitions to right living in Ephesians 4 he tells us not to sin. But he also tells us what our sinning would do. Eph 4:25-3025 Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. 26 “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, 27 nor give place to the devil. 28 Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. 29 Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Have you grieved the Holy Spirit? The Hebrew writer also puts our sin in a personal context: Hebrews 10:29 – Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? Have you insulted the Spirit of grace?

Conclusion: The most difficult truth revealed in the Bible for us to accept may be this one (not the virgin birth, parting of the Red Sea, or the resurrection) But the fact that we are sinners, without hope in this world. It is terrible news. Just a little missing the mark and it is disaster. There is no re-doing it later. However, this disaster report just sets the stage for good news. No one appreciates good news until they have seen the bad news.

Consider our earlier illustration: Do you see the man leap flailing arms and legs? With scared look on his face his fingers reach for the roof but not quite far enough. Then out of the dark reaches a hand and clasps his arm bridging the gap. That hand changes disaster into victory. God’s mercy reaches out to one who misses righteousness by inches and to the one who misses by a mile. Mercy bridges the gap for all sin. 1 John 2:1-2My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. The mercy of God is conditioned upon my response of faith and obedience. Mark 16:1616 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.