January 11, 2010

Defining Sin

If someone asked you to define sin, what would you say? Probably something like: ‘Sin is disobeying God’ or ‘Sin is doing wrong’ or maybe ‘Sin is hurting other people’. All those definitions would be true. If you are using My First Book of Questions and Answers with your kids (and I hope you are), you’d perhaps say that: “Sin is disobeying or not keeping God’s law in any way.” And that, too, would be a wonderful and basic answer.

But in the first chapter of Romans, Paul takes us one level deeper. How does the apostle define sin? Like this in Romans 1.21:

“Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.”

That is sin, in a nutshell: to know God (and, according to Romans 1.20, every human being knows Him, at the very least, as creator) … and, knowing Him, to refuse Him the honor and thanks that He deserves. So yes, hurting others is sin … but not first of all because of the others (though that is bad enough). Hurting others is sin because it reveals a heart that does not honor God who made those others in His own image and who commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And generically ‘doing wrong’ is sin too … but only because it is God who decides what is right and what is wrong! And yes, “disobeying God’s law in any way” is sin, as well …of course! Because disobeying God’s law is dishonoring God’s person!

But, according to Romans 1.21, one may actually keep God’s law to the ‘t’ … and still be in sin. Why? Because, though the letter is adhered to, the way in which we adhere to it may actually be dishonoring to God. We can keep God’s law grudgingly – because we have to, not because we delight to. We can also keep God’s law in a minimalistic way – doing just enough to get by, with no concern as to whether our effort pleases the Lord. We can obey God’s law half-heartedly, or with ulterior motives, or in order to please people. And we could go on demonstrating ways in which we outwardly obey, while inwardly failing to honor God and/or give Him thanks.

So yes, it is true that “disobeying God’s law in any way” is a good, basic definition of sin. And yes, it is also true that we may disobey God’s law, and thus commit sin, even when we have the right motives … because sin is not merely about motives. That is to say that there is a black and white standard in most areas of behavior that, when crossed, is sin whether we meant well or not!

However, Paul reminds us that motives are vitally important. He urges us to be aware of how deceptive our hearts really are; of how prone we are to do right outwardly, while disregarding or dishonoring God in our hearts! And we need to be aware that, at its root, this is sin – failure to honor and give thanks to our Maker!

That is the definition of sin – not just outward transgression of certain laws, but also all those relatively unnoticed and seemingly harmless moments when we don’t thank God for our successes … or don’t do our work for His sake … or don’t eat our food to his glory … or when we read our Bibles, or pray, or exercise for merely personal (rather than Godward) reasons … and so on. And if that is the definition … then each of us is a lot more sinful than we thought!

Now we can see why Isaiah says that all our righteous deeds are like menstrual rags. Because so often, though we do the right things, we do them oblivious to God … and we finish without ever giving Him the praise. “Even though they knew God” … and truly worshipped Him on Sundays, and really trusted His Son for salvation, and had His help with such and such a project … very many times “they did not honor Him as God or give thanks.”

What’s my point? And what is Paul’s? Not to make you feel overly guilty (though we should feel convicted). But rather to remind you of just how deep the roots of sin really go; to show you that they can and will never be eradicated by your own hard work and effort; and to, therefore, demonstrate just how badly you need Jesus … and how badly I do too!

Even as I type these words, I realize that part of my motivation is to honor the Lord … and part of it is simply to get this weekly article done and out of the way. And who knows what other selfish stuff is going on that I am not even spiritually alert enough to recognize! So how badly do I need a Savior? And how badly do you?

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