The Definition of Sin

by Rob Beames

We’re all very good at sinning. We’ve been doing it since before we could walk. We sin more than we know and we almost always know immediately when we do it. Our conscience takes care of that. Most of us don’t have to think too much about sin because we’re so focused on trying to avoid it. If we ever have any doubt about something qualifying as a sin, we can ask just about anyone else we know. Most people are eager to tell us what’s sinful. It seems everyone’s an expert on sin.

But what is it…really? It’s a little like trying to define electricity. No one really cares too much about what it actually is. We don’t need so much detail about it. We know how to make it work for us and we know how to avoid getting shocked. That’s all we need to know, right?

We’ve become so accustomed to talking about it and seeing the result of its power, we don’t seem to be concerned about what it actually is. Our sin is much worse than anyone can fathom, but don’t worry. Jesus has it covered!

Perhaps we are afraid to define sin because we may find out we’re all too familiar with it. In an effort to clarify sin, there’s a principle we can apply from a passage in the book of Romans which says, “…everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). That just about covers it…any questions?

It can’t be that easy…or can it? The formula appears to be straightforward enough. If we want to know if something is sinful then all we have to do is to answer the question, “Does it come from faith?” If we answer in the negative, then we know it’s sin. Is that way too simple? It’s not really.

Paul was addressing an early Christian dilemma which brought the hungry faithful toe-to-toe with those worried about offending God by eating meat which had been used in the worship ceremonies of false gods. He comes to the conclusion that it isn’t an issue of right or wrong and it certainly shouldn’t encourage looking down one’s nose at others for what they do or choose to avoid. He says what matters in these types of situations, where there is no specific direction from God, is that each person follows his own convictions. If we are convinced about a certain matter then we should act accordingly, but not because someone else says so. Love for our fellow citizens in the kingdom of God is once again the primary motivating factor in our actions.

Of course, Paul is talking about relatively insignificant although potentially divisive issues here. He is not talking about the core matters of our belief. We do not have the liberty to do what we think is right in our own mind regarding the vital aspects of the gospel.

Paul is just as convinced in his letter to the Romans that nothing is forbidden, in itself, as he is in his letter to the Corinthians when he says, “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). He is more concerned about the impact our actions might have on others because they don’t understand the freedom earned for us by Christ than he is about the actions themselves. Notice the lack of concern about righteousness? That has already been given to us by Christ. Notice the lack of warning about defending the righteousness of God? Well…that’s just irrational. God doesn’t need anyone to defend Him and certainly not weak creatures dying in their sin.

It comes down to the foundation of sin: faithlessness. When we sin we place our trust in our ability to meet our own needs. We fail to trust God to provide us with what He’s promised. We fail to believe that He truly desires our happiness and we take matters into our own hands. It’s sort of like listening to a serpent talk about an apple and then taking a bite—yeah, it’s been done before.

When we fail to believe that He has our best interest in mind and is withholding good things from us, we look for ways to get what we want. Unfortunately, we are in the worst possible position to know what we want because we are already affected by our sin to the point that we are almost always wrong. In any case, we stop believing in Him and His ways for us. We take charge. We lose faith. We sin.

When we start believing that the sacrifices we make somehow gain favor with God, we are putting faith in ourselves and not in the work of Jesus Christ. If it doesn’t come from faith—faith in the right person—it is sin. So, it appears that we are all sinners in the end. There is hope if we would “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).

If we think we know right from wrong, we really don’t. Most of it turns out to be wrong, if we think it matters to God. Avoiding eating meat used in the wrong way—as if the meat put its faith in a false god—doesn’t earn us any points. Having the freedom to eat, drink or smoke whatever we want gives us no advantage either. If we put our trust in doing the right thing, avoiding the wrong things or in our maturity to use the freedom we have in Christ, it’s still all sinful. Yes, it’s all sin if it isn’t produced by a faithful response to His love desiring to display that love in us and to communicate the power of Christ to others.

If we think for one minute that we are justified by doing something—even something good—we sin. If we think we are accepted by avoiding certain actions or thoughts—even evil ones—we sin. Only by our faith in what Christ did or didn’t do are we justified. Only because of the high esteem He has for us are we accepted. Only by the death of Jesus was our relationship with God mended. Our faith in that fact alone brings us near to God. Trust placed in our own actions only gets in the way. Only by the sacrifice of Jesus are our sins and the wrath of God which accompanied them swept far, far away. If we trust in the things we give up for Him—even if it is for Lent—the wrath of God remains on us.

However, we can do all these things in faith. It’s just not our natural way to do them. Whatever we chose to do in these somewhat ambiguous matters we do for God. Whether we chose to do something or chose not to do it, we give God the credit and the praise because we belong to Him. If we keep faithful in our belief that He alone justifies, none of these ambiguous acts are sinful at all.

So no matter what we do or avoid, we sin either way if we don’t keep it in perspective. Only by faithfully leaving our righteousness to Him are we saved. If we trust in what He did for us and only in this then we can avoid sin. In this way, we learn what it means to live by faith, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:17).

So, don’t worry. That action you’re stressing about was probably sinful. I’ve done it too. Those words you said were probably displeasing to God. Mine were too. If it didn’t come from faith, it’s sin. In that case, let’s put our faith in Him alone. He’s already forgiven us. If it does happen to come from faith, it’s righteous and we could all use a little more of that. (I believe He wanted me to remind you of this.)

One thought on “The Definition of Sin

  1. Mr. Beames,

    I read with great joy this article. It is filled with truth, encouragement and joy. I point specifically to the 13th paragraph as being the foundational truth from which all of God’s blessings flow to us. I am convinced that salvation is derived from both Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice; and the Father’s acceptance of that fact.

    Both believer and non-believer have the responsibility to honor our Lord and give Him the praise and glory in all things because of what He has done.

    Your words are taken from scripture; spoken gently, with love from the heart as only a child can do. And God has blessed them with strength and power. I can only thank my God for having brought me, once again, this reassurance that He is in charge.


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