What is Sin?

We will develop a definition of sin through various scriptures and when we are done we should have a crystal clear understanding of just what sin is.

First I would like to point out that we are truly living in a lawless time. The youth of our day are taught through music, books, and magazines and other sources that their parents rules and the various laws in existence are meant to be broken and that the various authority figures in our day are too strict and shouldn't be obeyed. At the same time, we are dealing with a Christianity in our day that has essentially thrown out God's Law and replaced it with a "feel good" gospel where obedience isn't really required. Therefore, a good, scriptural study that looks at the exact definition of sin and how it relates to all of us is a necessary endeavor.


We will look at this issue through the scenario of a man who simply picks up the bible laying in the street and reads it cover to cover. If this were to happen, they would soon realize and that they are a sinner in need of a Saviour. They would realize this by reading Romans 3:9 and 3:23:

Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;"

Romans 3:9, "What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin;"

They would then read the plan of salvation through the Old and New testament and would realize that Jesus is their sacrifice and if they accept His sacrifice on the cross...and if they are sorry for their sins, they can have their sins forgiven and can live a life that is pleasing in God's sight. So this man asks the question, "what is sin...that it caused such a sacrifice to be necessary?" "I had better find out what it is so I can avoid it."

Does the Bible say not to sin?

This man also reads the following verses in the Bible where it says not to sin:

1 John 2:1, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:"

In John 5:1-14, Jesus is talking with the man that He healed at the pool called Bethesda and he says in verse 14:

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 unto thee."

Similarly, in John 8:1-11, Jesus is talking with the woman taken in adultery:

John 8:11, "She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more."

So this man sees that Jesus Himself told someone not to sin.

Other references where the bible says to not sin are:

1 Corinthians 15:34, "Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame."

Ephesians 4:26, "Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath:"

Hebrews 12:4, "Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin."

In fact, the bible is quite clear in saying that we shouldn't sin (Romans 6:6-13).

Now if God is going to tell us that we are sinners and that we shouldn't sin....do you suppose that God will tell us through His word exactly what sin is? Do you suppose that God will make it so the humblest, most simple type of man can understand it? Or do we serve a God that shrouds in mystery what He wants us to know and only allows the learned doctor of divinity to understand His basic requirements? I would think that a God of love would show us exactly what it is that separates us from Him so we can stop doing whatever it is and get back into a covenant relationship with Him. This man thinks so too, and therefore decides to look up as many texts as possible in the New Testament and the Old Testament that speak clearly as to what sin is.

Definition of Sin

The man first reads some of the things in the book of Leviticus concerning sin and he comes to Chapter 4 verse 2:

Leviticus 4:2, "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them:"

Leviticus 4:13-14, "And if the whole congregation of Israel sin through ignorance, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done somewhat against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which should not be done, and are guilty; When the sin, which they have sinned against it, is known, then the congregation shall offer a young bullock for the sin, and bring him before the tabernacle of the congregation."

Leviticus 4:27-28, "And if any one of the common people sin through ignorance, while he doeth somewhat against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which ought not to be done, and be guilty; Or if his sin, which he hath sinned, come to his knowledge: then he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he hath sinned."

In each of these cases, the man realizes that sin is pretty clear...it's when you break the commandments of the Lord. This man also notices that in each case where sin was committed, an animal had to die. The man then decides to see what the New Testament says about sin so he comes to 1 John 3:4 and sees an almost mathematical relationship defined:

1 John 3:1-4, "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.".

This man would also see Romans 3:20.

Romans 3:20, "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin."

And 1 Corinthians 15:56:

1 Corinthians 15:56, "The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law."

Now at this point, the man (who has become an earnest seeker after truth)....might say..."well, the bible is very clear that sin consists of breaking the law, or law-breaking....but what law is the bible talking about?"

This man would then go to Romans 7:7:

Romans 7:7-12, "What shall we say then? is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good."

Now this man had already read the Old Testament where God's Law is given....so at this point, the definition of sin begins to get clearer:

Sin is the transgression of the law....specifically the law that has the commandment "Thou shalt not covet"....which is the ten commandments. This man would also note that Paul in Romans 7:12 states that he believes the 10-commandment law is holy, just and good.

Then this man comes to James 2:8 where it says:

James 2:8-12, "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty."

This man sees that, again, sin is related to a law which has "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," and "Do not commit adultery" and "Do not kill" in it. Therefore, sin is still related to the ten commandments. This man also notes that James refers to the ten commandments as a "royal law" and that if you break one of them, you are guilty of breaking the whole law and someday you will be judged according to that law.

This man now has no doubt that if you break God's Law, you are sinning.

So his initial definition becomes:

Sin is when you break God's Law.

Then the man comes to James 4:17:

James 4:17, "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."

And Romans 14:23:

Romans 14:23, "...for whatsoever is not of faith is sin."

And James 2:9:

James 2:9, "But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors." (For to respect persons is discrimination).

Now how does this measure up with all the other verses?

Let's look at it in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Luke 10:30-32, "And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side."

In the case of the Levite and the priest....did they do the right thing? No. And yet they knew that they should help this man...they had the Old Testament which is full of texts that say we should help our neighbor. Therefore, they didn't "Love their neighbor" as themselves, did they. Therefore, they sinned by not doing the right thing.

So now this man realizes that his definition of sin is getting even better:

Sin is when you break God's God's Law or when you neglect to do something that you know is right.

Now the man comes to a slightly tougher definition in Romans 14:21:

Romans 14:21-23, "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin."

Now this man must ask himself in view of all the other scriptures he read..."How does this text fit into my developing definition of sin?" We cannot take one scripture and build a definition on that one scripture....we must take all of the scriptures that speak of sin into account. Incidentally, the original Greek word for "sin" in this text and also in 1 John 3:4 is:

Greek word #266, hamartia, ham-ar'-tee'-ah; from #264; sin (prop. abstr.):--offence, sin (-ful). So we are not looking at two separate and different definitions of sin...we are looking at what the entire bible says about this word "sin".

In looking at this text we must determine the context surrounding it and also what is the action or lack of action that is going on? Verse 21 tells us that Paul is speaking of doing things that cause your brother to stumble. Verse 23 tells us that the man is damned if he eat, so there is definitely an action here. Remember that to be fair, God must give us clear instructions as to what sin is. Some people will use this verse to try to tell you that sin is a "state of being without faith"....in other words, if you are without faith, you are sinning and therefore sin is a "state of being" and not an action or lack of action. In view of all the texts we've already covered, that definition of sin is not good enough for me and I think it ignores many of the other plain texts on this subject.

I believe that the bible is here telling us that if we do something that we have a clear conscience about (we don't have a problem doing it), and yet we knowingly do it in front of someone who does have a problem doing it...we have sinned against him because we might cause him to stumble. So again, our definition of sin is becoming clearer and is as follows:

Sin is when you break God's Law or when you neglect to do something that you know is right or when you do something that causes your brother to stumble.

Now that we have covered most of the texts on sin and are finished with our biblical definition of sin, I want us to look at the last aspects of sin:

What happens to sin after we accept Jesus as our sacrifice?

Since we know from all the texts so far that sin is related to God's law, let's look at an illustration concerning the traffic laws of our city:

Suppose you break the speed limit and must go to court to pay the fine that is the result of your transgression. You get before the judge and he says, "why were you speeding, don't you know that the speed limit is for your safety and well-being....didn't you realize that there is a consequence to your transgression?....you must now pay $200 which is the penalty for speeding." You say to him, "I don't have $200, in fact I'll never have $200....." And here's the real point: He says, "Tell you what, I'll pay the penalty for you and give you another chance....but I don't want to see you do this again."

Now my question is: Does the speed limit law go away now that you received grace from the judge? No.
Are you now free to go out and speed again? No.
From a safety standpoint should you go out and speed again? No.

But in a way, the Christianity of today which has thrown out God's law and has redefined sin would seem to say Yes to these questions. Folks is that the Gospel? Once you are "saved" you are free to sin? Most Christians would say "Of course not"...but since they don't understand the true relationship of sin to God's Law they are actually saying yes, it is okay to break God's Law.

Enough of my logic, let's see what the bible says about the Law and Grace. And as we look at these, keep in mind the simple illustration of the traffic ticket.

The Law and Grace

Romans 3:28-31, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law."

Do we then make void the speed limit through our faith that the judge will pay the fine for us again? God forbid, instead we will do our best to establish the speed limit law.

Now how can we establish the speed limit or, in eternal terms, God's Law?

The word "establish" in verse 31 is:

Greek word #2476. histemi, his'-tay-mee; a prol. form of a prim. stao, stah'-o (of the same mean., and used for it in certain tenses); to stand (trans. or intrans.), used in various applications (lit. or fig.):--abide, appoint, bring, continue, covenant, establish, hold up, lay, present, set (up), stanch, stand (by, forth, still, up). Comp. #5087.

So we should abide or hold up or stand by the speed limit law and thus, we should abide, or hold up, or stand by God's Law.

Another example of this is in Romans 5:20:

Romans 5:20-21, "Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord."

Romans 6:1-2, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"

So shall we continue to break the speed limit to get the judge to provide more grace by paying the fine for us? God forbid.

There's a really good example in Galatians 2:16-17:

Galatians 2:16-17, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid."

Now reason this through: This tells us that we are not justified or forgiven by obeying the law but we are justified and forgiven through faith in Jesus.....in other words you can't be saved or forgiven by keeping God's Law, however, if we are claiming that we have faith in Jesus and yet we are sinning and what is sin?

Sin is when you break God's Law or when you neglect to do something that you know is right or when you do something that causes your brother to stumble....

If we do these things while claiming that we are saved through faith....we are making Christ a minister of sin. We are saying that our allegiance to Him gives us the freedom to sin. This is a totally corrupt view of the Gospel.

Folks, it can't get any clearer than this...a child can understand this concept....and yet for some reason grown men and women who are Christians cannot understand this concept and accuse those of us that do understand it as being "legalists".

In summary

These three scriptures say a lot on the subject of sin and God's Law:

Psalm 119:165, "Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them."

Revelation, 22:14 "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."

1 John 5:3, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous."

May each of us strive each day to ask Jesus to help us not sin against Him. Amen.

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