March 18 – What is Sin?

March 18 – What is Sin?

Ps. 81:11-12

“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.” (Psalm 71:11-12)

Sin is moral wrong. There is much wrong in the world that is not moral. Rust on my automobile fender is evil, and so is a bank failure, the weakness of old age, or an earthquake that destroys a city. Evil, indeed, but we do not hold anyone guilty for poor judgment, for the troubles and grief of our human condition, or for natural disasters. When the lion pounces on the antelope, the antelope, at least, considers it an evil. But we do not say the lion sinned. Why not? Because unlike “wrong,” “evil,” “badness,” or even “crime,” sin introduces the idea of God. Sin has to do with moral conditions and behavior relating to the righteous character of God and his will for creatures made in his moral likeness.

The Bible views sin as both active and a choice of the will and also as dispositional. Sin is transgression against the law. In fact, where there is no law, there is no sin (Rom. 7:7). It can be volitional, a deliberate choice—and usually it is. The rebel deliberately violates the law. The individual knows to do right but doesn’t do it. That is sin (James 4:17).

But sin is not the violation of just any law—laws of reason, laws of parents, laws of state. Sin is against the law of God. In fact, to violate the law of God is to violate God. The great problem is vertical, and from a wrong vertical relationship flow all the horizontal wrongs (Gen. 39:9). When David said, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” (Psalm 51:4) he did not mean that he had not sinned grievously against Uriah and Bathsheba and, indeed, the whole nation. What he meant was that these responsibilities to fellowmen pale into insignificance compared with the terrible sin of violating God and his law.

Some would say that deliberate violation of the known will of God is the only attitude or activity we may classify as “sin.” Sin is the willful disobedience of God — the knowing transgression of his law, the conscious denial (in effect) of his absolute sovereignty in the universe.[12]

The condition of sinfulness some theologians called “total depravity.” The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of this original corruption as making all men “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.”

All people are equally wicked; not that any person is as thoroughly corrupt as it is possible for a person to be nor that we are destitute of all moral virtues. The Scriptures recognize the fact, which experience abundantly confirms, that people, to a greater or less degree, are honest in dealings, kind in their feelings, and beneficent in their conduct. Even the unsaved, the Apostle teaches us, do by nature the things of the law.[13]

Total depravity does mean that the downward trend is irreversible by human effort and that every person is infected in every dimension of their life — our thinking, our affections, our body, our relationships, and, above all, our will. We are incapable of consistently choosing the right.

God judges sin because of his own nature. Therefore, by nature he is incompatible with anything not morally right. The two cannot coexist. This is the meaning of holiness: God is separate from sin. Thus, the judgment of sin is the inevitable result of the nature of God and the nature of sin — separation. Adam and Eve experienced this judgment as the immediate result of that first, fatal choice to reject God’s way. They were not only driven from the Garden; their intimate companionship with God was ruptured. The independence for which they grasped was granted, which itself was the judgment — separation from God. Most people would not consider this a very terrible judgment, never having known union with God. But separation from God, the source of life, means separation from the gifts God would give, including, supremely, the gift of life. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

This death works inexorably in every facet of a person’s life. God in his grace gives us a probation period (one’s lifetime) to reverse the choice of Eve and during that time gives gifts in abundance. The goodness of God is designed to lead to repentance (Rom. 2:4). But if the rejection of God’s grace continues till physical death, the judgment — separation from God — is complete. This is the essential characteristic of hell. Sin by definition is violation of the law of God, rejection of the will of God, and thus the judgment for sin — separation — is actually chosen by the individual. He or she chooses to distance themselves from God, and God allows us to do so. This is the awful outcome of sin.

The psalmist shows how the judgment of separation is the choice of the individual: “My people did not listen to my words and Israel would have none of me; so I sent them off, stubborn as they were, to follow their own devices” (Ps. 81:11-12, NEB).

Paul reiterates the same truth in his terrible denunciations recorded in Romans 1: “God gave them up . . . God gave them up . . . God gave them up.” What loss for anyone! Aren’t we glad for grace?[14]

[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, vol. 1 (London: James Clark, 1949), 310.

[13] “Nomos,” in TDNT, 1069.

[14] Introduction to Biblical Ethics (IBE), Robertson McQuilkin, (2014), 494-495.

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