What is Sin?
A THEOLOGY OF SIN
Sin, as one doctrine of the Christian system, is the common denominator of the other doctrines.
Richard S. Taylor makes this point at the outset of his classic work, A Right Conception of Sin.1 His argument is that any doctrine that relates to sin, is effected by our understanding and definition of sin. Most errors in theology can usually find their roots in a defective definition of sin. This I have found to be profoundly true. We have two key players in theology, and one main problem: We have God; we have man; and we have the problem of sin. All systematic theology comes down to this reduction.
We find in theology that God is holy, and that this holiness prevents God from being able to have the relationship with man that He desires. Man, on the other hand, is separated from God because of sin. Man can do nothing in the way of reconciling or mending the relationship, so God must be the One to find a way to bring us both together. God's holiness is spurned on by His love to make a way. Grace is God's answer through the atonement of Christ on our behalf. This is where most theologians agree. All orthodox theologians will accept these points. So why do we end up so far apart in explaining how this wonderful grace comes our way? Why are we so divided? The answer lays primarily in our definition of sin.
If our definition of sin causes Christians to view things so differently, does this not imply that the problem resides in a faulty view of what sin really is? Instead of tackling the problem of how God saves us through the atonement to determine our definition of sin, wouldn't it be far better to seek a definition of sin before we attempt to determine how the atonement works? Theologians put way too much emphasis on their theological support for their definition of sin. Sin tends to get defined by how we make the atonement work instead of what the Scriptures say that sin is. Circular reasoning makes for great arguments, but those that can differentiate between the facts, and the theories used to support those facts, will find themselves closer to common ground.
What Then Is The
Definition of Sin?
While it would be desirable to come outright with a definition to work from, I believe it will be of better use to the reader to see that any definition that is arrived at must be based upon an inductive study of Scripture concerning sin.
Much of the difficulty in defining sin is that there is no universal consensus as to what the nature of sin really is. Any definition given will no doubt be scrutinized and summarily rejected by some for this very reason. Even though an attempt will be made to arrive at a usable definition, I fear that many will either outright reject the definition because it does not meet their theological presuppositions, or that a singular definition does not do justice to the whole realm of what sin is. We cannot easily gloss by this most important doctrinal theme and just rely upon our theological pillows for comfort. To have right belief we must have right understanding of fundamental truths.
Sin is generally admitted to be twofold:
1. "In sin did my mother conceive me." Ps. 51:5.
2. "He that commiteth sin is of the devil." 1 Jn. 3:8.
The first indicating a nature or state we are born with. Some call it original sin, inherited depravity, total depravity, fallen nature, etc. It is thought to be the result of a state in which we all inherit from Adam through birth.
The second type of sin is what we would call actual sin. These are sins committed as an act. It is described as unbelief, rebellion, self-will, unrighteousness, idolatry.
Both types can be described as unclean, impure, unholy.
When one reads of a statement of sin in the Bible, we are confronted with the question as to whether the passage speaks of sin as a state, sin as an act, or both.
Original sin, depravity, or corrupt nature, is displayed as the state in which all unregenerate people are in before salvation. Some suppose that this means that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam, some see it as something that is acquired through an act of the will after infancy, and others believe that it is an inherited nature in which each of us is born, but does not imply personal guilt for what Adam did. Depravity would not be our fault, it would be our misfortune. This misfortune makes us unfit for heaven, requiring the atonement for cleansing, but not forgiveness. The later of the views is what I see as being brought forth in the Scriptures. This will be covered in greater detail under the heading of The Depravity of Man.
Sin as an act is of more importance to us here and now. It is something that is in the realm of our responsibility, and as such, should be examined to see what, if anything can be done about it.
Two examples of sin as a verb, an act, are presented to see the elements constitute a "sin."
"Sin is the transgression of the law." 1 Jn. 3:4
In this, we see an essential element... transgression of the law.
Secondly we see, "To him, therefore, that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." James 4:17
In this we see the second element... knowledge of what is wrong, and willfulness to do wrong.
Sin, as an act, is defined by Wesley as "A willful transgression of a known law." This holds to the elements in question. The idea that we gain by this is that sin, as an act of rebellion, requires that one understands that they are doing wrong.
Leslie D. Wilcox gives an example of this in volume 3 of his Profiles in Wesleyan Theology. 2 He gives us an example of a man who buys a house and property. According to his understanding, the property line goes straight back from his house. On what he believes to be his land is a fruit tree, so he picks and takes the fruit. The neighbor sees this, and comes out of his house furious and screaming, accusing his new neighbor of being a thief for stealing his fruit! Unbeknownst to the new neighbor, the property line goes at an angle, and the fruit tree is clearly in the neighbors yard.
The question is, did he sin? According to Wesley's definition he did not (in the sense of an act of rebellion), for it did not carry the essential elements. First, he did not know he was doing wrong. Secondly, he did not willfully violate his neighbor, but yet, to all rights and appearances, the new neighbor broke the law and stole what was rightfully his neighbors. Now, once he was informed of the fact that he violated the law, then he owed his neighbor restitution for his loss.
Now, what if the new neighbor was taking pears from the tree that was on his property, but he thought they were on his neighbors property? Did he sin by taking fruit that was his property? Yes! Sin is a matter of the heart and intent, not necessarily the result of what occurred. If he thought that he was stealing his neighbors pears, he was committing a sin in his own heart, a willful transgression of a known law of God. This illustration helps us to rightfully differentiate between a mistake, an act of ignorance, and a willful act of sin.
This gives us insight into many passages of Scripture such as in 1 Corinthians where a man was involved with incest. Paul, a Jew who knew the Law, was in a pagan land where they knew little or nothing of the Law. Paul constantly remarks with exasperation, "Did you not know?" This is how they could be carnal, yet obedient up to the light that they had about right and wrong. Once informed of the sinfulness of this act, Paul suggests that Church discipline be enacted as to "turn such a one over to Satan." Luke records in Acts 17:30, that, "the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent." God views mistakes and "sins" of ignorance differently than willful "high-handed" sins, which is to be seen throughout Scripture. "Sin" as an act is something that the Bible asserts is unavoidable. To remain true to the Scriptures, we must differentiate between intentional sin, and "sins" of ignorance. God reveals that He makes the differentiation, so we must do so also. There is a sin which leads to death (willful sin), and that which does not, (sins of ignorance) 1 John 5:16. This is evident by the context which states, "We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself..." 1 John 5:18. There is no subtle endorsement for a doctrine that Christians 'sin in word, thought, and deed everyday,' in this passage or anywhere else in Scripture.
We also have examples of the Old Testament saints who did things that would be sinful in our understanding of Christian ethics. We need you understand that many of then lived before the Law. Many of them had limited light. We can see now what they did was wrong, but we cannot say in all cases that they knew, and were willfully disobeying God. If it is not stated in Scripture, we have no right to interject willfulness where God has not.
Many already have a bias as to what sin is, and will paint the picture much broader. This idea that God judges according to a man's light and knowledge does not fit in with their current definition of sin. For those of you who feel that way, consider the following: "Jesus said unto them, if ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now you say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth." John 9:41. "if I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak for their sin." John 15:22. "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes." Luke 12:47-48. "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." James 4;17.
I am sure that the last verse quoted has come into question as to whether that is the meaning of the passage. Most erroneously read sins of omission into the passage. The reference is not speaking of sins of omission, but sins of sinning against known light. Commentator, J.P. Lange says of this passage, "The reference is not to sins of omission, but to sinning against the light and knowledge, to doing evil the knowledge of good not withstanding... the persons, whom James addressed knew well enough that they ought to do good, but separated their knowledge from their practice and did evil. (Lange's Commentary,)3 James, pages 121-122. This observation caught me off-guard. I had been trained to read sins of omission into the passage: but Lange is right, the context speaks only of sins that they were doing, and not sins of leaving things undone.
It is great that we have a definition to work with, but what makes this definition any better than any other? This is a valid question in which we can derive an answer.
TESTING OF A DEFINITION
To narrow the definition of sin as a act to "a willful transgression of a known law of God," seems to not go far enough for many people. Many choose a definition of, "to deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior." This makes anything less than the perfection of God to be sinful. This definition, although the most commonly used one, makes the Bible out to be a book of absurdities. First, such a definition accuses Adam and Eve of sin in the garden before the fall. Any tripping over a stone, or spilling a drink would deviate from a absolute perfection. Secondly, it generally includes omissions, which condemns our Lord Himself for not healing everybody, for not visiting every prisoner, and for not caring personally for every widow. By such an absolute standard, nobody can do anything right. Doing nothing becomes sin. God does not command us to be God, but godly to the extent that we can in our humanity.
W.T. Purkiser in his book, Conflicting Concepts of Holiness,4 he suggests that we test our definition of sin by taking the verses of the Bible that speak of sin as an act, and inserting our definition in place of the term "sin." If our definition makes sense in place of the word, it is likely a good definition. If it makes the passage to be nonsense, or contradicts the passage, then it is an impossible definition.
Let's put some of the 41 references of sin that Scripture states as a verb to the test. For clarity I will restate the two alternative definitions again.
Wesley's definition: A willful transgression of a known law of God. (Ethical definition).
Legal definition: To deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior.
Romans 2:12, "For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law."
Wesley's definition: "For as many as have willfully transgressed a known law of God without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have willfully transgressed a known law of God in the law shall be judged by the law."
Legal definition: "For as many as have deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior in the law shall be judged by the law."
So far, both definitions work, but it makes little sense to why God would inform us of the legal sense, for we could never do anything about such a failure.
Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
Wesley's definition: "For all have willfully transgressed a known law of God, and come short of the glory of God."
Legal definition: "For all have deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior and come short of the glory of God."
Both seem to work here too.
1 Jn.1:10, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
Wesley's definition: "If we say that we have not willfully transgressed a known law of God, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
Legal definition: "If we say that we have not deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
Both work again, but the legal definition appears to border on the lines of being awkward.
Matthew 18:15, "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother."
Wesley's definition: "Moreover if thy brother shall willfully transgress a known law of God, against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother."
Legal definition: "Moreover if thy brother shall deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior, against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother."
The legal definition does not work well here. It is clearly not the intent of the passage.
John 5:14, "Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you."
Wesley's definition: "Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: willfully transgress a known law of God no more, lest a worse thing come upon you."
Legal definition: "Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior no more, lest a worse thing come upon you."
The legal definition does not make any sense here either. The fact that in your humanity your next breath is not as perfect as God's, renders you a sinner. How can one who is not God, be commanded by God to be as perfect as God? The ethical definition works without a flaw.
John 8:11, "She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."
Wesley's definition: "She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and willfully transgress a known law of God no more."
Legal definition: "She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior no more."
Once again, an impossible command if we use the legal definition.
Romans 6:15, "What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid."
Wesley's definition: "What then? shall we willfully transgress a known law of God because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid."
Legal definition: "What then? shall we deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid."
This is clearly speaking of avoidable sins with the exclamation of "God forbid!" The legal definition makes the passage an absurdity.
1 Corinthians 7:28, "But if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned..."
Wesley's definition: "But if thou marry, thou hast not willfully transgressed a known law of God; and if a virgin marry, she hath not willfully transgressed a known law of God..."
Legal definition: "But if thou marry, thou hast not deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior, and if a virgin marry, she hath not deviated in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior..."
The legal definition is once again nonsense. It is an impossible definition of the verb "sin."
1 Corinthians 15:34, "Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame."
Wesley's definition: "Awake to righteousness, and (do not) willfully transgress a known law of God; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame."
Legal definition: "Awake to righteousness, and (do not) deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame."
Shame because they do not exhibit absolute perfection? Such a remark would be laughed off by any audience! The legal definition fails miserably.
One last one.
1 Timothy 5:20, "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear."
Wesley's definition: "Them that willfully transgress a known law of God rebuke before all, that others also may fear."
Legal definition: "Them that deviate in any manner from an absolute standard of perfect behavior rebuke before all, that others also may fear."
I don't know about you, but if we take the legal definition as the Biblical definition in this case, then many would have fear; fear of having anything to do with Christianity!
My friends, more can be stated, but even one example proves the legal definition to be an impossibility. Any definition of a word that only works some of the time, and fails to work most of the time, and cannot pass the test of literal and practical application, cannot be the right definition! But people will still cling to their old understanding of what an act of sin is in defiance of the facts. The old definition works for them, it feeds their theology.
What Sin Is Not
Once again, we come full circle to answer our original question. We can gather some clarification of what sin is by observing what it is not. "We hold positively that sin is not only an accident or misfortune, it is not a mere stepping stone in man's moral development, but that it is a condemnable fault. The sinner is blameworthy in the sight of God. Sin has its seat in the will and is an evil thing in the world. When a man opposes his will to the perfect will of God, he is not merely unfortunate, but he is a culpable wrong-doer. He who voluntarily opposes God's will is blameworthy in the sight of God and is liable to punishment."5 Sin is not merely being human, but is an avoidable thing in which we are held accountable for. Everywhere in Scripture we are exhorted to "sin not." But so many define sin in a way that makes these commands to be utter nonsense! Sin is sin, and reaps the same result. If the standard of what is sin is "anything that deviates from the actual perfection of God," then all we can do is to sin! But God is clear, we are not to sin; we do not have to sin! (Ezek. 3:21; 1 John 2:1). So many in their definition of sin unwittingly create an attitude that murder is as bad as forgetting a promise! To this strange idea of sin, Dr. Phineas F. Bresee remarked that "A failure to distinguish between sin and infirmity, puts an undue emphasis upon sin, and has a tendency to discourage earnest seekers from pressing on to full deliverance from the carnal mind. Calling that sin which is not sin, opens the door to actual sinning".6 This took a while for it to sink in when I first read it, but I soon realized that it was quite true. If sin is deadly, as we know it is, and everything that falls short of God's perfection is a sin, it is ridiculous to even attempt to try avoid sin, for the very imperfection of your next heartbeat, or your next breath, is not as perfect as what God's would be, and is therefore "sinning." "But to make everything sin is, in effect, to make nothing sin".7 To make that which is amoral, i.e., forgetfulness, mistakes, unintentional offenses resulting from ignorance, to be "sin," is truly to make "nothing" sin. If we make no differentiation whatsoever, we leave door wide open for allowing all sorts of sin.
Richard S. Taylor states, "Choice of evil, or sin in act, always produces the combination of the three facts, and such a combination always brings forth death.'8 The "three facts" that Taylor refers to are: "the result of sin? It involves (1) separation from God, (2) depravity of the moral and spiritual nature, and (3) just punishment."9 Sin is a choice; an avoidable choice. "Sin is a clenched fist and a blow in the face of God,"10 Otherwise, sin would be merely a misfortune, something in which we are held accountable for when we had no power to choose otherwise. It is clearly an injustice to damn someone for something that they cannot avoid doing. No ability; no responsibility. "If we view the problem scripturally, sin is inexcusable. If it is unavoidable, however, it is excusable. Therefore to say sin is inexcusable is to declare sin to be avoidable."11 An erroneous doctrine of sin that makes "nothing" to be sin fails miserably, especially in light of the terrible consequences of sin. A wrong idea of what sin really is could easily sink the most devout Christian into despair. The only options left for those that desire to be consistent is to either defy Scripture and allow for sin altogether, or to believe the Scriptures and ensure that their doctrinal understanding of sin is in alignment with the Scriptural possibility of not sinning.
Many are not satisfied with the definition of sin as I have presented. For fear that I may be claiming that "sins of ignorance are not really sins," they will not find that assertion here. Those who do not differentiate between an "act" of sin, and a "mistake" will argue that even sins of ignorance are stated to be in need of atonement in the Scriptures. They will find no disagreement with me that sins of ignorance are truly sins and are in need of atonement! But I will assert that the Scriptures clearly treat "sins of ignorance" differently than "willful acts" of sin. "Certain New Testament passages have a bearing on this matter. One of them is Heb.10:26. "For if we sin deliberately" (RSV); "For if we go on sinning willfully" (NASB); "For if we sin willfully" (KJV); and "If we deliberately keep on sinning" (NIV). This passage implies that we can sin without it being willful and deliberate."12 But also note that in this passage "unwillful" and "sins of ignorance" are treated completely different from willful and deliberate sinning, especially in its end result! "[E]ven unintentional sins need to be atoned for--or cleansed moment by moment--by Christ. Leviticus 4-5 teaches that such sins need to be atoned for. When a person "sins unintentionally...he is guilty" (4:27), and "When he is made aware of the sin...he must bring...his offering for the sin he committed" (v.28). Likewise in the New Testament, such sins need to be cleansed away. In 1 John 1:7 we read, "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." Here, as the believer is "walk[ing] in the light," some things are called "sin." They are so serious that the blood of Jesus Christ needs to cleanse them away. It is to be noted, though, that the word for "purifies" in in the present tense in the Greek. This means that such a believer is cleansed right as the sin occurs..."13 Note the contrast between 1 John 1:7 and Hebrews 10:26. Deliberate and willful sin is treated with the utmost severity. Sins of ignorance, while still sins that need cleansing, are immediately met with grace. Also note that one can be pure in motive, thereby "walking in the light" yet commit a multitude of unknown and unwillful sins without violating his or her conscience. A "deliberate" sin however, involves rebellion against a known law of God, and is incompatible with "walking in the light." There is no automatic cleansing for those who sin with a "high hand."
We started the examination of sin by attempting to emphasize the importance of finding a Biblical definition. Sin touches nearly every critical facet of theology and must be carefully examined to avoid tainting our theological doctrines. If we assume that it is something that it is not, then we build a tower of theological presumption upon it. Sin is central to the doctrine of salvation and the atonement. This is certainly an area where we cannot afford to be in error; the fate of our eternal souls could hang in the balance!
We have also observed that the most popular concept of sin today is the legal model. It paints the brush broadly, yet leads us to inevitable failure. The nature of sin is not that we fail to succeed in being equal to God, it is the failure to ascend to the capacity that we are able as human beings. Our limited knowledge can lead us to failures, but these failures are not rebellion if the are done so in ignorance. God knows the heart and intent of every person. No one is punished with eternal damnation the sin of Adam, but we all suffer the misfortune of an inherited depravity. This nature we are born with is met with grace to respond, which makes each individual personally accountable.
We also tested the popular idea of sin, and the Wesleyan definition of sin within the context of different passages. The Wesleyan model fits every single passage that uses sin as a verb. Only a small percentage of passages worked with the legal model.
Sin is a choice; an avoidable choice through the grace of God. If it is avoidable, then we are accountable. Sin as an act of the will is to be separated from sins of ignorance, or mistakes. With the exception of including "ignorance" as a sin that always carries the same damaging effect as willful sin, the following definition seems to follow along with the points of this article, and those that have preceded it in this series.
"Sin is to be defined primarily in relation to God. It is disobedience, unbelief, ignorance, [the idea that "ignorance" is the same as "disobedience or unbelief" I strenuously deny!] and the passive assertion of usurped autonomy, and the wicked deviation from, or violation of, God's righteousness will and law. The breach of a right relationship with God carries with it the disruption of a right relationship with others and the disintegration of the self. But this is a derivative, for it is because of sin against God that there is sin against others and oneself (Ps.51:4)."14 I can accept many of the finer points of this definition as it relates to the practical aspect of what sin is and does. While it is important to understand what sin is, we must keep in focus that sinning always has some bearing upon our relationship with God and others. Hopefully by realizing this, we will be motivated by love to avoid the damaging effects of sin; but if we cannot be motivated by love, this knowledge should give us a healthy fear of the reality of what our sin does, not only to us, but God and others!
1. A Right Conception of Sin, Richard S. Taylor, page 9, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1945.
2. Profiles In Wesleyan Theology, Leslie D. Wilcox, 3:166, Schmul Publishing Company, Inc., Salem, OH. 1985
3. Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, John Peter Lange, D.D., Volume 12, James, pages 121-122, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI. New Edition 1960.
4. Conflicting Concepts of Holiness, W.T. Purkiser, pages 40-48, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Revised edition 1972.
5. Systematic Theology, S. J. Gamertsfelder, D.D., Ph. D., page 413, Evangelical Publishing House, Harrisburg, PA. 1938.
6. Christian Theology, H. Orton Wiley, footnote 2:508, from Bresee's Sermon: Death and Life, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO, 1952.
7. Exploring Our Christian Faith, W.T. Purkiser editor, page 293, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. 1978.
8. A Right Conception of Sin, Richard S. Taylor, page 26, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1945.
9. A Right Conception of Sin, Richard S. Taylor, page 24, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1945.
10. A Right Conception of Sin, Richard S. Taylor, page 66, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1945.
11. A Right Conception of Sin, Richard S. Taylor, page 74, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1945.
12. A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, J. Kenneth Grider, page 292, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1994.
13. A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, J. Kenneth Grider, page 293, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, MO. 1994.
14.The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia revised, Geoffrey W. Bromiley editor, 4:518, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1988
A Theology Of Sin
The Holiness of God
What is Sin?
The Wages of Sin
The Depravity of Man
The Grace of God
Sin and the Atonement
Must we Sin?
Chastisement and the Christian