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What is Sin?

What is Sin?

A Raw Look at Sin and Unraveling Its Complexities

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

January 16, 2024

What is Sin?

If I were to ask someone at random from any church in America, “What is sin?” I’m not confident that I would get a full definition. It would be easier to ask someone to name some sins. This we can do well, but defining what sin is can be hard because sin distorts our reality. As humans who sin a lot, we should have the ability to define precisely what sin is. “Sin wraps itself in a cloak, spreads abroad dense fog, waits for darkest night and moves stealthily.” [1] Sin makes us unable to view the world rightly and therefore being aware of what sin is takes more than just being good at sinning. It takes the ability to step back and look at how God sees sin as described in the Bible.

Defining Sin

“God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” [2] Ecclesiastes 7:29. I love the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” [3] When it says “Sin is any want of conformity…” this means — in plain language —  that it isn’t simply violating when God prohibits something, but is also sin when we fail to conform to his positive commandments. For example, when God says to love your neighbor as yourself, a failure to do this is also sinful. You could also say that this is a covenantal way to view sin. Sin revolts against God’s good and just covenant, it sees God as an evil God whose covenant and word we cannot trust.

From a church history perspective, the doctrine of sin has been something that has marked churches that were faithful to orthodox (or true) Christianity. Aside from a few minor heretics throughout church history, there hasn’t been pushback against the doctrine of sin until the last 50 years.

Why would God need to remind us of something that brings us so much shame?

Sin brings guilt because it is the soul’s way of responding to something that is incomprehensibly harmful to it. Like pain in the body when physically harmed, shame and guilt result when our souls have been damaged.

Sin — by its very nature — brings shame, because it affirms that something has happened that never should have. It is more than someone making a wrong choice, but the reality that a wrong has happened against both individuals (Luke 15:21, Romans 3:23) and a community (Joshua 7:1, Nehemiah 1:6-7, Acts 2:40, 1 Corinthians 12:26). Sin is also — and most devastatingly — against God himself (Psalm 51:4, Genesis 39:9).

We must address the origin of sin, and that it doesn’t come from God. [4] But it would be false to say that sin is an eternal thing, or somehow is equal to God. Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve. [5] Wayne Grudem describes three things that led to the fall of man. The first was to question God’s revelation, they questioned what was true. Second was to question God’s morality, they questioned what was good. And the third was to question rationality, it doesn’t make sense to go against God. [6]

God commands us not to sin because it violates how we were created to function.

The fall of man into sin plunged him “into an estate of sin and misery.” [7] God had warned them against this, but Adam and Eve didn’t listen. The results of this are that mankind felt shame and guilt for the first time. [8] Mankind once — in the garden — had the ability not to sin. Because of their disobedience, we lost this ability, and now we can’t seek God or seek righteousness apart from him. This is also called total depravity.

This affected our relationship with God. We went from children in a perfect state with God to becoming children of wrath. We see this in the garden when God not only gives curses to Adam and Eve, but he exiles them from the garden. Mankind now lives subject to the judgment of God. And because of our sin, we are all guilty. [9]

The nature of sin is that it destroys the soul. Sin is naturally bad for humans, this is why God commands us not to sin, [10] not to rob us of fun but to deliver us from the undoing of our souls. C.S. Lewis says this,

“It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”

Sin is painful to talk about because it is the worst news there is, that we have done a cosmic injustice that we cannot repair. The good news is that God had a plan to fix sin. In a very real sense sin is the opponent he came to conquer on our behalf. God sent his son, to pay the debt for sin that we couldn’t pay, by dying on the cross. Jesus came to defeat sin and death once and for all. For those who are Christians, we can look forward to eternity where there will be no more sin, no more shame, and no more miseries of life.

  1. Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology: Man and Christ, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 325.

  2. ESV, Crossway, Ec 7:29.

  3. The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996). Question 14

  4. ESV, Crossway, Dt 32:4.

    4  “The Rock, his work is perfect,

    for all his ways are justice.

    A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,

    just and upright is he.

  5. ESV, Crossway, Ro 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”

  6. Grudem, Wayne. "Systematic Theology." 2nd ed. Zondervan, 2000, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 494.

  7. The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

  8. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:10. “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

  9. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 3:22–23. “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”

  10. ten commandments

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