A Biblical View of Sin
For many of us, September marks the beginning of a new year. Children return to school, summer holidays (for those who take them) are over, and we gear up for another year. This month also begins a new series. In it I want to explore what the Bible teaches about sin. Most of us don’t give this subject a great deal of thought. We acknowledge that we are sinners and would just as soon not dwell on it. I hope, however, that our brief exploration of this subject will help us see more clear what sin is and how God views it. Much that the world calls evil, God does not, and vice versa. Who gets to define sin, right and wrong, good and evil – forms an arena of disagreement debated in almost every aspect of society. In the Bible, God says that He alone has the authority to define sin.
A Biblical View of Sin
The existence of sin is an undeniable fact, as attested by Jesus’ simple words, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you,” The conscience agrees with Jesus, ensuring that everyone knows what it means to sin. No one can examine his own nature, or observe the conduct of his fellow man, without concluding that there is such an evil as sin.
What Is Sin
James 4:17 probably gives us the simplest definition of sin: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” We will look more closely at this later in the study, but note that James does not address the issue of who determines “what is right.” Thus, we need to return to the words of Jesus quoted above. Note the following: 1 – Jesus defines hypocrisy. When you treat others differently from how you want to be treated, you are a hypocrite. 2 – Jesus allows each individual to determine for himself what is right and wrong, if he so chooses. When you violate the “Golden Rule” you are wrong. 3 – All people, everywhere, irrespective of their religion or culture, acknowledge that hypocrisy is wrong. 4 – If you wish a relationship with God, He insists that He alone gets to define sin. If you don’t want to live eternally with God, He will allow you to define sin for yourself, but insists that you never violate your own standard.
James, however, tells us what sin looks like in practice; he does not tell us what it is. Is sin a substance, a principle, an act, a defect, a feeling, an evil purpose, all of the above, or none of the above? What makes sin evil, the breaking of a law, violating justice, being unfair? How does this relate to the question of holiness? Against whom does one sin? Whose law is broken? These questions are interrelated and must be dealt with as a whole. Hopefully, in the course of this study, we will touch on all of them.
Philosopher’s Handling of Sin
You cannot determine philosophically the principles of beauty and then decide what people must admire and dislike. All philosophy can do is take the facts of our aesthetic nature and from them deduce the laws or principles of beauty. So too, you cannot determine philosophically the nature of sin and then deduce the laws and principles of sin. You cannot adopt a theory of moral obligation that forbids our recognizing as sin what the conscience condemns. For example, you cannot philosophically argue that homosexual behavior is normal, and therefore not sin, without taking into account your conscience.
We will look at two of the more prominent views of sin as defined by philosophy: Dualism and A limitation of being.
Dualism: Sin is a physical evil, the defilement of the spirit by its union with a material body. As a principle, it is co-eternal with God. These two principles are in perpetual conflict. If you have viewed any of Lucas’ Star Wars films, you can immediately identify this worldview. Sin is “the dark side of the force.” Sin is not a moral evil; it is the necessary condition for the existence of virtue. Just as you cannot have rest without fatigue, there can be no good without evil, no heaven without hell.
Magnetism affords an illustration. When you take two magnets in hand you find that likes repulse and un-likes attract – when you try to force two positives together they resist, and when you place a positive with a negative they attract. Magnetism cannot exist without this “dualism.” When you embrace the worldview of Star Wars, sin ceases to be an intrinsic evil. For this reason, people find this an attractive philosophy.
The Greeks, and probably the Hindus before them, embraced this concept of sin. It was originally thought of as an intellectual shortcoming, the opposite of wisdom. It evolved to mean an offence which is committed with evil intent and which therefore occasioned guilt. The philosopher Aristotle saw sin as the absence of virtue. His definition found its way into the biblical Greek word for sin: “To miss the mark.”
Who defines virtue? The Greeks had no standard by which to judge. They believed that all people have a general understanding of the difference between right and wrong. They could not agree, as is the case today, on who gets to define what is right and what is wrong. Because the Greeks, like the Hindus, believed in reincarnation or the trans-migration of the soul, they saw life as a consequence of guilt in a former life – an expiation of a fault that the soul committed in a former life.
They saw a dualism between the body and soul. The body is evil, the prison that houses the soul. All people recognize the limitations of the body; it breaks down and prevents the person from accomplishing what he wants. Eventual freedom from the body is the objective of reincarnation. Thus, when a person is born it means that that person in a previous life died with a guilt that required expiation in the next life.
The absence of virtue results in suffering. If your present existence means that you died in an imperfect state in a former life, you cannot tell if your present suffering reflects an absence of virtue in this or a former life. Hinduism, with its stepchildren Buddhism, Taoism, and the Shinto religion of Japan, argues that you can best escape the prison of your body by being passive in this life; you should not disturb your “karma.” Thus, guilt is not the result of freely choosing evil over good, but rather improperly responding to your karma.
A Limitation of Being. In this view of sin, the distinction between good and evil is merely a quantitative distinction between more and less. For example, there is no difference between a stunted tree and a wicked man; neither measured up to the norm. You can immediately see that people will differ as to what the “norm” ought to be. If it is relative, then good and evil becomes a matter of degree. Nothing is totally good and nothing is totally evil.
After each act of creation God said, “It is good.” God did not mean that His creation was morally good, but rather that they were suited to the ends for which they were created. You cannot infer from “it is good” that inanimate objects are morally good. So too, you cannot conclude that those acts which God condemns are a quantitative lack, for who makes such a determination? The Sovereign God determined the ends for which inanimate objects were created and He determined acceptable and unacceptable behavior for those created in His image.
If you define sin as a limitation of being, you destroy all sense of moral obligation, and give unrestrained liberty to all evil passion.
In the next issue we will begin looking at how Scripture defines sin. Just as there cannot be law without accountability, so too you cannot have absolutes without a Sovereign God who holds the creature accountable. The follower of Christ is emphatic in what He calls sin because the Judge of all has established a standard. For the Christian, sin must be defined solely by what God says. The Bible alone determines right and wrong.
As we have noted in the past, investigation and experimentation are the tools of the scientific method, and they have been used to give us the extraordinary standard of living that we currently enjoy. But when you apply these same tools to the moral arena, you end with sin and ruin. One of the great tragedies of our time is academia’s use of investigation and experimentation in matters pertaining to morals.
Curiosity is both one of man’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. He cannot resist the urge to investigate the unknown, to penetrate behind the creation of God. To the degree that he is able to do this, however, he develops a critical spirit, critically scrutinizing the Creator. He tends to think and act like God, unhampered and responsible only to himself. With cloning he says, “I wish to control the creative process.” With DNA manipulation he says, “I wish to correct the imperfections of the Creator.”
When God created man, He created him a rational being with the ability to reason and form judgments about himself and the world. With these innate traits God encourages us to explore the world He made. What then, should we do with our seeming ability to clone and manipulate genes? How far can we investigate and experiment without sinning? No one knows and God has not said.
I suggest that motivation determines the line between the permissible and sinning. Because the believer is free to do whatever the Bible does not prohibit, you cannot call wrong what the Bible does not disallow. But God knows the heart. What are you trying to accomplish? These God-given gifts – part of what it means to be created in His image – can easily lead you into an adversarial relationship with God. Instead of seeking to glorify Him in the expression of your gifts, you seek to declare your independence from Him. Thus, the move from glorifying God to becoming His enemy takes place in the heart. No one else may know the difference, but you and God do.
To the praise of His glory,
 Matthew 7:12
 Cf. e.g., Genesis 1:10, 12