Why do we need to understand sin?
Very few words are so confusing and controversial as sin. For some the word resonates with feelings of shame that shut down conversation. And yet the same word can appear in a commercial about chocolate ice cream to describe a particularly good caramel sauce.
Many churches have stopped using the word “sin” in recent years. There are several reasons for this, but the main reason is the negativity of the word. I have even heard Christians say things like: “The gospel is about grace, not sin”; or “We need to preach forgiveness, not sin”.
The obvious problem with those statements is that words like “grace” and “forgiveness”, make no sense whatsoever without sin. Why do we need grace? What is God forgiving? Preaching grace properly is only possible if we preach sin, and if we don’t talk about sin then we are short-changing the gospel’s offer of forgiveness.
If we do not understand our problem, we cannot understand the solution.
Some people will agree with this, but will still suggest that we should avoid the word “sin” and use other words instead. While we do need to use a wide range of language to describe sin, the trouble is that no other word fully encapsulates its meaning. If we only talk about “brokenness” then we will think ourselves only as victims of sin, and forget that we are also guilty of it. Words like “rebellion” have the opposite problem. The answer is not to throw out the word sin.
But we need to carefully examine what sin is. Sin will always carry a feelings of guilt and shame, and this is not a bad thing. The gospel gives us the security to confront our shame, not avoid it. From the safety of grace, we can be honest about our greatest guilts and shame. Forgiveness gives us the deep security necessary to process these realities, and come to a richer understanding of ourselves and God through them.
What is sin, at its most basic?
“Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.”
1 John 3:4
Put simply, sin is disobeying God. The Hebrew and Greek words most commonly translated as “sin” literally mean “missing the mark”. Sin is a kind of failure which may or may not be deliberate, but always reveals a personal inability to obey God. Sin is breaking God’s laws, and rejecting His authority. It is not the laws in themselves that matter. Rather the breakdown of relationship between us and God is the heart of our problem.
“Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.”
We are not less guilty if we are ignorant of God’s laws. Even if we do not know the laws that we are breaking. We all have enough evidence to be without excuse. The reality of God is present in every human conscience, and yet we suppress this reality. Excusing and deceiving ourselves so that our hearts are hardened toward God, we no longer desire to know Him or worship Him.
“What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
All people are guilty of sin. Since Adam and the first sin, all who descended from him have inherited a condition called “Original Sin”. Original Sin is an inner leaning toward sin that we are born with and cannot change. God holds each of us accountable for this inner desire to dethrone Him, as we are individually judged and all found guilty.
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
A good way of understanding how sin works is to break it down into three steps. First the heart desires, second the mind chooses, and third the body acts. I will detail these steps below.
How does sin work?
1) It begins in our hearts
“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?”
Sin at its most basic is a lack of desire for God. At a fundamental level, all of us do what we desire. We eat when we are hungry, we sleep when we are tired. “That’s not right! I do all sorts of things I don’t want to do”, you might say. “I study, I train for sport, I clean up my house”.
This is true, but desire is more complex than that. You study even though you don’t “want” to, because you desire success, and because you don’t want to get in trouble, and because you want to please your teachers and do well. You overcome your lack of desire to study because through study, you get other things that you want. In this case you are still very much “doing what you want”.
All of our human behaviors start in the heart. It is complex, but we always do what we want. When we sin we do so because in our hearts we do not desire God. Jesus teaches this, saying that sin doesn’t come from external influences but rather that it begins in our hearts.
“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
All of this means that avoiding sin requires more than rules or even a rational change of mind. Unless our heartfelt desires change, we will always choose sin.
The word we use to describe this lack of desire for God is pride. That might seem strange. But when you consider that God is the source of all good things, that He is the most powerful being in existence, and that He has commanded us to live a certain way; then it makes sense that a lack of desire to do so should be called pride.
Pride occurs when in our hearts, we shrink down the goodness of God and we puff-up ourselves to fill the void. Pride was the door through which sin first entered the world. The serpent tempted Eve with the promise of sin making her like God. Had Eve’s heart not been proud, she would not have desired this. But because Eve desired to become like God she took the fruit and ate.
All sin then begins with a proud heart which does not desire God, and then it moves to the mind.
How does sin work?
2) It corrupts our minds
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.”
In a sense, Christians believe in free will. The Bible teaches that all of us are responsible for our choices, and that we are all judged according to our actions (Romans 2:6). But there is a big caveat to that, as the Bible is also abundantly clear that before choosing to follow Jesus, we were “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:16-19).
Some people have very complicated ways of trying to reconcile the universal sinfulness of humanity, with the idea of free will. But actually it is very simple. Our “will” is our minds capacity to make choices. Our will does this by searching our desires, observing our circumstances, and making choices that will get us what we want.
The will is in this sense “free”. It can make any choice which it is able to carry out. But, the will is captive to the desires of the heart. We will always choose those things we want most, and so the will is not “free” to choose things which the heart does not desire. Not because it cannot, rather because it will not.
Because of this a heart which desires sin will always lead to a will which is enslaved to sin also. The mind here becomes “depraved” (Romans 1:28), applying all of its God given intellect and creativity to the purpose of sin instead of worship.
This in turn corrupts our consciences, as we try in our minds to justify our desires. We make elaborate excuses for ourselves, and construct clever arguments to justify our actions. Our ability to recognize right and wrong is distorted by this, and our consciences themselves become unreliable (1 Timothy 4:2).
But we cannot silence our consciences alone. In order to reassure ourselves we find others who will affirm us. Our minds are reinforced by culture, as groups of people with shared sinful desires celebrate sin together. Together we silence our shame and mute our consciences, as we do things which God created us to naturally recognize as shameful.
“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
The result is that our minds always choose our desires, and our hearts never desire God. This means that unless our hearts can be changed, our choices are always tainted by sin. The lengths we go to to justify our actions, also guarantee that we cannot even recognize good or evil if we try.
We disfigure these categories in our project of self-justification so much, that over time we don’t even think of what we are doing as sin. This means that when we are confronted by God’s word, we hate it. God’s word casts a light onto our actions and reveals them as evil, but we devote our minds to concealing sin and keeping our actions in the dark.
“The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
In this sense, all sin leads to deception and lies. The Devil is called “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and sin is summarised as a “lie” in Romans 1:25 and Colossians 3:9-10. Lies are the misrepresentation of truth, and sin results in ignorance. Ignorance of God as we ignore His word. And ignorance of ourselves as self-justification replaces honest self-assessment.
These lies then manifest in our bodies, when we act in ways that reveal our ignorant minds and wayward hearts.
How does sin work?
3) It acts through our bodies
What we think of most often as “sinning”, is actually only the tip of the iceberg. As you can see, sin affects much more than just our outward actions. Nonetheless, a sinful heart always leads to sinful actions. And these sinful actions will always take the shape of idolatry.
Idolatry is the word we use to describe wrong worship. The word is taken from the practice of worshiping an “idol” or statue; but we use this analogy to describe any kind of worship which replaces God with something else. This summarizes all sinful actions.
The Bible portrays idolatry as an extremely degrading practice. This is because mankind was created in God’s image, to rule over all of creation (Genesis 1:28). The only thing above mankind was God Himself, who ruled over mankind.
When replace God and worship something else we are lowering ourselves, bowing beneath things we were meant to rule. In this way we deface the image of God within us, and become less than human.
To quote St. Augustine: “nothing could be more wretched than mankind being ruled by the work of their own hands. Since man by worshiping his own handiwork may more easily cease to be man, than his handiwork through being worshiped can become God.”
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”
As we exchange true worship for idolatry, we live to serve inferior things and we become small and vulgar. Our idolatry can look exciting, but actually it is common and droll. There is nothing brave or exciting about living for self gratification. When our lives are characterised by sin we disappoint ourselves, we disappoint others, and we incur the anger of God.
Through idolatry we forfeit our dignity. Dignity is the inverse of pride. Pride is a puffed up conception of self that displaces God. Dignity is the right sense of worth that comes through imaging God. When we replace dignity with pride, we are replacing substance and truth with bravado and lies. We reject the worth that God gives us and replace it with a cheap counterfeit.
This is the nature of sin-in-action, to promise much and deliver disappointment. The pleasures we chase leave us more and more dissatisfied. Happiness is always just around the corner, and the heart is never whole so long as it feeds itself with sin’s empty calories.
What are the consequences of sin?
The primary consequence of sin is death, which is entirely fitting when you have considered all of the above. We have cut ourselves off from life at the source by failing to worship the God who creates, sustains, and judges.
In pride we forget our purpose. We were made to enjoy God but we replaced him with things which left us deeply dissatisfied and anxious.
We fuel this sinfulness with deception, obscuring God’s word. We lie to ourselves about our situation and push thoughts of death aside. When our consciences cause us to feel shame, instead of changing we find voices that will comfort and affirm us.
Because of this, we degrade our bodies and distort God’s image through idolatry. We commit false worship as we act out our sinful fantasies and cheer on others who do the same.
For these reasons, God cuts mankind off from eternal life. He does not continue to sustain those who use their lives to rebel against Him. He allows sinful humanity to live for a time, but then withdraws His life-giving Spirit.
“My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are corrupted.”
Because of sin, God also gives suffering that we might become aware of how inadequate our lives are. God desires us to be dissatisfied with this world, in order that we might turn away from it and seek Him. But instead of repenting in light of the dissatisfaction of suffering, we double down in our sin and hate God even more.
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The ultimate consequence of our sin is not merely the absence of life or a separation from God. It is judgement as God pours out His divine wrath. Jesus spoke more about Hell than any other figure in the Bible, and used the analogy of a burning wasteland to describe it. A state of complete desolation and regret, God’s judgement is still fair and right. Mankind continually resists and rebels against God in every way, even going so far as to ridicule and kill those whom God sends to warn them. Even going so far as to kill God’s Son, Jesus himself.
‘“You are just in these judgments, O Holy One, you who are and who were; for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”
And I heard the altar respond: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.’
What can be done about sin?
The problem is more than skin deep, and so repenting of sin requires more than a change of behavior. The writers of the Old Testament struggled with this realization. They realised that what we really need is not another chance, or a little more information, but rather new hearts.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
Thankfully, God in His grace offers us exactly this. Humbling our pride, renewing our minds, and returning us to real worship; God has acted to transform us through the gospel. The good news is that Jesus offers us full forgiveness, complete mercy, and eternal life. By dying in our place, Jesus has taken the punishment that we deserve. We receive this grace in full, if we only turn and follow Him.
But of course, grace is a big subject. Thankfully, even bigger than sin. Grace will be the subject of the next article. But if you can’t wait til then, turn to Jesus now and you will find it.