Author: Jonathan Pruitt, Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
It makes sense that many people wonder “what is sin?” First, sin is uncomfortable to talk about. Hearing the word sin might bring about feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or even anger. Second, many people may feel that sin is an outdated concept. Some may think that to sin is merely to violate some arbitrary religious rule and so we don’t really need to worry about it too much. Insisting that sin is relevant and important may seem presumptuous or naive. Nevertheless, from the Christian perspective, sin is an idea that matters very much and it needs to be understood. It is a central idea in the Christian story, the fundamental problem that needs to be solved. After all, Jesus came to save us from our sin (Matthew 1:21).
To understand what sin is, we first need to see that there is a way the world should be and there is a way that we should be as human beings. God created the world with a certain purpose in mind and he created us with a certain purpose as well. That purpose has never changed. Jesus helps us understand what that purpose is when he gives us the greatest commandments. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29–31).
Here is a simple way to understand what sin is. Any time we fail to live according to God’s purpose for us, then we sin. One Hebrew word translated as sin is khata and it literally means to “miss the mark.” Hamartia is a word often translated as sin in the New Testament and it refers to an “act contrary to the will and law of God” (Louw Nida).
The Bible uses a number of metaphors to describe sin. Sin is described as a weight that keeps us from God and from enjoying God’s blessings (Hebrews 12:1). Sin is a restraint that causes our strength to fail (Lamentations 1:14). Sin is like a sickness that needs to be healed (Hosea 7:1). Sin is a debt that we cannot pay back; our sin results in destruction, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin is also sometimes personified as if it had the power to entice and entangle us (Romans 7:17).
Consequences of Sin
As we can see, the consequences of sin are grave. The Bible tells us that a life of sin is ultimately a life of suffering, defeat, and death. Some might think that sin has this power because it is literally some kind of force. And the Bible does sometimes talk about sin as if it was a force (cf. Romans 7), but that is likely only a metaphor. Sin doesn’t have any power of its own. Rather, sin is just the name the Bible gives to those acts which don’t align with God’s will and intentions for us. To sin is to rebel against our Creator.
But that raises a tough question. If sin doesn’t have any power on its own, then why does it produce all these bad effects? There are two reasons for this. First, when we sin, we do what we weren’t designed to do. When we act in ways that run contrary to our design, it makes us unhappy. It’s as if a bird decided to live like a worm. Birds aren’t made to live like worms; that’s not their purpose. Its wings won’t be much use for burrowing and its beak won’t do for eating a worm’s diet. So the bird will be unhappy because that is the natural consequence of going against its design.
God created us to love him and to love each other. When we don’t do that, we are like the bird who lives like a worm. We will be frustrated and suffer; we will be unhappy. Sin separates us from God. Apart from God, we cannot possibly be happy. That makes sense if loving God is our purpose. Loving him is the only way we can really thrive as human beings. Without God’s help, “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–everyone– to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Sometimes, sinning can lead to momentary pleasure, but it will inevitably result in an empty life in the end.
Judgment of Sin
Second, the Bible says that God punishes sin. Sin goes against our design as God’s image bearers, but it also violates the law of God. As a God of justice, God must punish violations of the law. God is the perfectly just God who enforces a perfect law. He is not like a fallible human judge who administers an often broken and bent human law. Since the law of God is “perfect” and since his statutes are “trustworthy,” trespasses are dreadfully serious (Psalm 145:7). A just judge cannot simply overlook infractions of a perfect law. So God justly punishes sin. Psalm 145:20 says that God will “destroy” the wicked. Jesus reaffirms this in the New Testament. Jesus says that sinners will “be thrown into hell… where the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47–48). This is another way that sin separates us from God.
That’s bad news. It’s especially bad news when we learn that the Bible teaches that all of us are sinners, “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:9–11). All of us have sinned and none of us can escape the justice of the all-knowing God. And if we refuse to love God, then the inevitable outcome is that we become hollow and empty. God is the only source of life, and when we sin, we cut ourselves off from that.
The Good News
But there’s a reason why the coming of Jesus is said to be “good news.” Jesus, as both fully God and fully man, lived a sinless life, and his death satisfied the justice of God. Because of Jesus, God can forgive our sins and still be a God of justice. And Jesus restores the broken connection between God and man so that we “may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Through the work of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to love God as we ought. We can live the life we were meant to live.